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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: The Last Exiles

Title: The Last Exiles

Author: Ann Shin

Publisher: 1st September 2021 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 336 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary fiction, cultural Asia

My Rating: 4 crowns


An unforgettable saga inspired by true events, The Last Exiles is a searing portrait of a young couple in North Korea and their fight for love and freedom

Jin and Suja met and fell in love while studying at university in Pyongyang. She was a young journalist from a prominent family, while he was from a small village of little means. Outside the school, North Korea has fallen under great political upheaval, plunged into chaos and famine. When Jin returns home to find his family starving, their food rations all but gone, he makes a rash decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, miles away, Suja has begun to feel the tenuousness of her privilege when she learns that Jin has disappeared. Risking everything, and defying her family, Suja sets out to find him, embarking on a dangerous journey that leads her into a dark criminal underbelly and will test their love and will to survive.

My Thoughts

I was motivated to read The Last Exiles as I thought it would provide a rare insight into life in North Korea. I was right. Ann has done her research and through an engaging storyline, illustrates the many struggles faced both within the country and the hardships faced trying to defect from it. It was most illuminating. 

‘She had always been true and faithful to the Party, but a trapdoor had opened and everything she held to be true and fundamental was slipping, falling into an abyss.’

Within the borders of North Korea, Ann covers both the life of city and country, the well off and the destitute - all in all, rather confronting from wherever you stand. Whether it be the dictatorship and corruption, or brainwashing and brokers, she lays it all out for her readers to see. Told through the eyes of a young couple in love, this provided the perfect avenue to issues such as human trafficking and the ordeal of illegal immigration as examples. Quite extraordinary to consider that separated by a river, life can be so very different for those across the border in China. 

‘Back home his family was still living in famine conditions under the austerity regime, while here the average citizen ate meat, had electricity in their home and drove around in a car. There was no reason why North Koreans couldn’t live like this too. How could the Dear Leader have kept this all away from his own people? 

How could Jin have devoted his life to this leader who had banished him from his country and his family, ultimately over a sack of cornmeal?’

The two main leads work their way through many hardships, providing the perfect mode to highlight the conditions. Yes, at times some events may appear lucky or coincidental, but dive deeper and focus on what Ann is trying to convey. Suja sacrificed so much and both she and Jin exhibited such a strong determination to both survive and thrive. Their harrowing experiences so foreign and at times incomprehensible to our own. 

Overall this is a story of love and hope, bravery and fortitude and the resilience of the human spirit. Maybe too resilient, as Ann alludes to ….

‘The fabric of life in North Korea was riddled with dark holes, and yet somehow it held together. … Everyone had their losses; they knew to close up these losses and to go on with life, never speak of it again. Sometimes humans are too resilient for their own good.’

Visit Helen @ Great Reads & Tea Leaves

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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