In a remarkable easy-to-read style, Samuel Park addresses the philosophical issue of free will and choice in his debut novel THIS BURNS MY HEART.
The central character is a beautiful and intelligent Korean girl, Soo-Ja. The reader comes to know Soo-Ja through the twists and turns of a life created by the convergence of several factors beyond her control. The social conditions (South Korea after the Korean War); her ambitions as a woman in a restrictive culture (she wants to be a diplomat in a society that only expects well-bred young women to marry and care for her husband, in-laws and children); and her ancestral background (born to wealthy parents) all set the stage for Soo-Ja’s journey.
From her Father’s decision about Soo-Ja’s career to the husband she chose to the decision made by the slimy (but helpful) property developer Mr Gi-Yong, THIS BURNS MY HEART constantly reminds one of the need for a conscious awareness of the consequences of our choices, not only those which affect us, but those which affect others. “I was young. I was a fool,” said Soo-Ja and encapsulates the underlying melancholy that runs through this novel. Often, we have to make major life choices when we are too young to understand the consequences.
With delicate passion and deft skill, Park leads us through Soo-Ja’s emotional evolution from a young, rather spoilt girl, to a mature woman who faces her past mistakes, endures their consequences and ultimately finds the courage to make a different choice. Later in her life, as she grows into an acceptance of what is, Soo-Ja reflects , “She had not been allowed to pursue happiness; only to try to find some meaning in her sufferings, and look for a way, however small, to make sense of her disappointments.”
Many times, I found myself thinking of my own country and its people. From the description of Chu-Sook’s mother’s shack; the youth challenging a repressive government; the low image of Korea that ex-pat Koreans have of the country (perhaps as a way to justify their choice to leave their birthplace) and the complexities of Soo-Ja’s intergenerational family relationships, this novel rises above superficial cultural differences and penetrates to the core of our common humanity.
In vivid detail, Park brings Soo-Ja’s world alive for the reader. From the vibrant street markets of Daegu to a dingy inn in modern Seoul, one can smell the noodles cooking and hear the horns blaring. This is the Soo-Ja’s world, but it could be mine. Both flawed and very human, she is a heroine whose desires, mistakes and emotional growth could be those of any woman, anywhere in the world.
With sensitively drawn characters and an engrossing love this story did exactly what it promised: at times, my heart ached , not only for Soo-Ja, but for all those whose presence was intricately woven through her life.
Samuel Park’s THIS BURNS MY HEART is an engrossing read that raises questions that linger in the mind long after the last page has been turned. Since finishing it, I have spent many hours reflecting on the choices I've made in my life. Soo-Ja's story helped show me that even the bad choices I made could be turned into inner victories: "The life she had was in fact the one she’d been supposed to have, she told herself. Without its lessons, how could she have become the woman she was?"
(Note: I'm giving away one free copy of THIS BURNS MY HEART on my blog
until 31 May 2012)