If you pick up Forgotten Reflections with the intentions of reading just a normal historical fiction novel, you will be absolutely surprised with how much better this is. It has fabulous characters and a plot that is wonderfully tricky.
Starvation is nothing new to her Korean village. It was a dawning presence for generations, from when the Japanese demanded their rice, until now. However, unknowingly, Iseul sits at a crossroads, along with everyone in her village, because a war is brewing. A war that will split the very country apart and bring the eye of the world straight to Korea. And furthermore, Iseul is in love for the first time – with a boy whose family is alleged to be North Korean spies.
Told from varying perspectives, Forgotten Reflections oscillates between a present narrator – Iseul’s granddaughter – and Iseul herself. However, the narration brings many other voices in, including Iseul’s love interest. I fell in love with the tone of the narrator, and especially her granddaughter’s story. Here is where the first departure from a typical historical fiction novel occurs, because we have two plots here: where the granddaughter tries to unravel the history of her grandmother, and where Iseul is involved in the Korean War.
(One of the things I loved was the use of food as both a major catalyst, and a subtle reminder of the class differences, gender differences, and privilege indicators).
On both levels, each heroine is extremely fierce as they navigate their incredibly different but similarly complicated lives in this story of family mystery. Both are struggling in their own ways against society and in an effort to establish themselves in the world. As the plot goes on the two narratives come closer together, prolonging the suspense not only of Iseul’s tale, but of her granddaughter’s discovery.
For the most part I had a complicated relationship with Iseul, both admiring her strength and being confused by some of her actions – but never fear, all will be revealed in this slow burning novel. And don’t you just love characters you have to unravel? I also deeply appreciated the parallels between Iseul and her granddaughter, not only as two women, but two that are connected by family. The complex plot twists and turns, transitioning in part two to a novel that involves military tactics, yet so much more – our relationship with our fathers and honor.
The Author’s Note
Furthermore, Lee does a beautiful job exploring these themes of war, transition, and a nation that is, even now, on the edge. In the author’s note, Lee’s opinions on the current state of Korea as well as thoughts on the current society, are fascinating and well explained in the author’s note. This provides a treat for the readers, even after the actual story is complete. I really appreciate the care Lee takes into making sure we not only are entertained, but understand the motivation behind it.
This is a touching story, not only about love or the Korean War, but also about our own identities and (re)unification in different forms. The many ways in which Lee engages with the theme of (re)unification and separation is truly masterful. I could go on about the things I really enjoyed, from the side characters, to the papermaking. All in all, if you are at all interested in Korea, historical fiction, or a story with daring heroines this is a must read.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review from the author.
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