Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

Pub. Date: 29th December 2009 (US) 8th July 2010 (UK)
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (US) Granta (UK)
Pages: 314 (US) 316 (UK)
Genre: Non-fiction, history
Rating: ★★★★★
Buy: Paperback
More: Goodreads

Synopsis via Goodreads: Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.

I’m not too sure how it started, but my mother is on a North Korea kick at the moment, reading books such as Escape from Camp 14. She asked me to find her a new one to read and after some research, I came across Nothing to Envy. After reading a few reviews saying that interviews were written as a narrative, and that it was a compelling account of ‘what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet’ and of one of the most reclusive societies in the world (citizens are rarely allowed out, and visitors, if allowed in, see the country only under a strict veneer), I had to read it.

The title is taken from a popular song taught to schoolchildren at an early age, and is familiar to them as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is to us:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world. / Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party. / We are all brothers and sisters. / Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid. / Our father is here. / We have nothing to envy in this world.

If you’ve been following Pretty Books for a while, you’ll know that dystopian fiction is a favourite mine, so why should a book about North Korea shock me? I read about societies where severe social control is exerted, and lack of individual freedom is widespread, often. But honestly? I never really thought about this country, a country that fits into the definition of ‘dystopian society’ so well. And what is most shocking is that it isn’t just ‘history’ – people are still murdered or sent to labour camps for attempting to leave the country, or for making a joke about the ‘Eternal President’, today.

Nothing to Envy follows the enthralling lives of six people who we know eventually defected from North Korea, such as Jun-sang, the son of a wealthy family destined to join the Worker’s Party; his girlfriend Mi-ran, from a family ranked much lower in society meaning they must keep their relationship a secret; and Mrs Song, who always followed the teachings of Kim Il-sung so strictly, despite never having enough food to eat, and would never dare to step out of line. I was desperate to know what made these people leave the country they’ve always been told they’re privileged to be born in, and how they escaped. I instead got much more out of the book than this. It is utterly compelling; a fascinating, incredible, brilliant read. I hated having to put it down.

Read an extract from Nothing to Envy here. Discover more about North Korea (other than by reading this book, which you must) by watching this documentary: North Korea: A Day in the Life.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

  1. I really enjoyed reading your review for this book Stacey. It’s definitely interesting to learn about North Korea, considering that nobody knows anything about it. I’m going to get this book for my former thesis advisor, because he said he hadn’t read it yet.

  2. Thanks for the review! If you’d like to branch out a little from NK, pick up Mitali Perkins’ Bamboo People, which is set in present day Myanmar / Burma, and touches on some of those same dystopia-in-real-life themes.

  3. So my prof already started to read this book! I was going to get it for him before I graduate and we were talking about it and then he said “Oh I already started it! It’s quite good”. I was left with a sad face lol. I definitely thought I would beat him to it. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the title lol. Then I could have given it to him.

  4. Thank you for featuring this book; I was interested enough to check it out from my library and it has had a huge impact on me.

  5. […] Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver The Casual […]

  6. […] Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick I borrowed this from a family member and gosh I am glad that I did. It’s utterly heartbreaking. If you do not usually read non-fiction, I urge you to pick this one up. It’s the story of six people who eventually defect from North Korea, a country that is severely controlled, and whose citizens are not allowed to leave, written as a narrative. […]

  7. […] Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater Unwind by Neal […]

  8. […] was loaned Stasiland by a colleague because I loved Nothing to Envy, and On the Island by my mother, who has just finished it and liked it a […]

  9. Just read this book. Wrenching, uplifting and compelling.

  10. […] Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick Escape North Korea. Nothing to Envy follows the enthralling lives of six people who we know eventually defected from North Korea, such as Jun-sang, the son of a wealthy family destined to join the Worker’s Party and his girlfriend Mi-ran, from a family ranked much lower in society meaning they must keep their relationship a secret. […]

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