Friday, September 28, 2012

Review by BookIdeas ( )
(reviewer: Celina Cuadro)

Owen Choi's 'Tendrils of Life' not only tugged at my heartstrings as a reader, it strummed and plucked them through a whole range of emotions like a well-played harp. Moving themes of love, filial loyalty, and the kindness of strangers play counterpoint against the horrors of the Korean War and the rap
acious greed of men ready to take advantage of a country in turmoil. I could not put it down - I worried for them as if the characters were neighbors and friends of mine who were going through so much personal upheaval, and I could not stop till I knew all that befell them.

Bark Jimin and his sister Misern had an idyllic childhood in the remote island of Ockdo in the South Seas of Korea. Likewise, somewhere near Pyongyang a young girl named Sora was enjoying life at her grandfather's home before her family left to visit the United States. Both Jimin and Sora held memories of their childhood dear to their heart by the time their two families end up as neighbors in Seoul. They had no idea how precious those memories would become - Korea was in the middle of social, economic and political upheavals that would give rise to the Korean War, and soon Jimin and Sora would lose their homes, their families, even each other. Despite heart-wrenching tragedies and ordeals that pushed the limits of their bodies and sanity, a love blossomed between them. But how can tenuous tendrils of a possible life together survive the ravages of war?

'Tendrils of Life' hooked me immediately as a reader because of the emotional rollercoaster the characters went through - Jimin, Sora, and Misern endured so many tragedies I found it easy to commit to them and fret for their welfare. They went through so much - the physical exhaustion of walking everywhere because there was no reliable transport; the gnawing hunger and the filth they endured as they traveled; the dangers of the road both from people and attacking aircraft - that I was on tenterhooks trying to find out if they managed to stay alive. In quiet contrast to the atrocities of war was the slow bloom of love between Jimin and Sora. In Seoul they were neighbors who saw each other but never spoke. When they met once again they met as strangers who started to talk to each other frankly and deeply, and it was those quiet talks that sealed the bond and made them seek each other out each time they were split apart. This quiet theme of love anchored me as a reader and helped me speed through the tumultuous events taking place in the hopes that they would find each other again. And yet this was not solely a romance: the author was just good at using quiet themes to anchor me through the backdrop of turmoil and tragedy. The growing love between Jimin and Sora was a pervading and obvious 'quiet' theme, but there was also the quiet sibling loyalty of Misern, who my heart went out to because in my opinion she was the saddest subplot of the book. Little Misern was relatively helpless for being so young, yet she followed her elder brother doggedly, accepted his decisions despite any difficulties they caused her, and believed all his promises. There were times when Jimin was near death, or nearly insane, and the thought of Misern - worrying about her, remembering a promise he made to her, or just knowing he might let her down - would pull him from the brink and strengthen his resolve. Perhaps it is because I have a younger brother I am close to and have sacrificed for that I sympathized with her plight the most, and even after reading all through to the end and the epilogue, I still shed a tear for her.

This tale was riddled with numerous personal tragedies - War is ugly, sad, and painful - so there was very little levity to be found within this book's pages. The story was uplifting however because Owen Choi struck the right balance to give me as a reader lucid insights in human hopes and dreams that transcended the mind-numbing suffering. There were quiet vignettes of touching kindness from strangers on the road who had very little to give, but cared and helped in whatever way they could - they alleviated the characters' current pains, restored my faith in the better parts of human nature, and helped both of us move on. There was the stoic tone the author used to illustrate how victims crushed under War's heel managed to keep going - no matter how many times one is raped, no matter how many times one is conscripted by thugs and made to march to parts unknown, no matter how many loved ones are killed or die by the wayside, one must still pick oneself up and move on. There would be little strength to waste on drama because there were still loved ones traveling with you who need your care, there was the gnawing hunger in your belly and theirs that needed to be sated, and more was asked of you - the stark tone the author used for narration, devoid of overly flowery description, helped give me that impression and helped me grit my teeth and keep going with the characters. And finally the chapters that were called 'Commentary' also helped - they gave a overview of what was taking place in Korea at the time in order to show the historical and socio-political context of Jimin's and Sora's situation. I found these chapters disconcerting because they pulled me out of the characters' personal tragedies, yet I realized in retrospect that they helped restore my objectivity, gave my emotions rest, then gave me useful information before I delved deeply once more into the intricacies of each characters' journey.

I get the impression that Owen Choi wrote from the heart - he did not belittle his characters' suffering, but he did not sensationalize the drama or pain. I hope more readers discover this moving story and would highly recommend 'Tendrils of Life' to all those who would like a peek at human resilience amidst a difficult time in Korea's history.

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