A River In Darkness

The harrowing true story of one man’s life in—and subsequent escape from—North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.

3 stars ***

I got this book for free from Amazon from their World Book Day giveaway. A River in Darkness was fantastic and horrifying. Nothing about it went how I imagined it would and it left me completely wiped out mentally. Masaji Ishikawa told his story in a memoir that leaves you with questions and unforgettable mental snapshots.  Being from any First World country we can only imagine most the the things faced in other parts of the World. Join Masaji as his father moves them from Japan to North Korea in search of the “better” life they had been promised. This book wasn’t easy to read and I can’t imagine it was easier to write. The misery, fear, terror, and starvation Masaji has faced over his lifetime is bleak and atrocious. This book pulls you in and tosses you into the hell that is being the lowest class of North Korean citizens with absolutely no potential for moving yourself forward in rank or even deciding your own profession. You can only watch as what little you have is lost or taken over and over again and everyone around you hates who you are supposed to be (a rich foreigner). You fit into neither world and are left bereft, sometimes without the ability to understand anything that is said to you.

Masaji writing is not what I would call elegant; yet even as un-embellished and raw as his writing was it was also dramatic and noteworthy. Stepping into this novel with the knowledge that every word written is not fiction but simple fact of life makes it even more compelling. Somehow this book did not feel finished though. I am not sure if this is a matter of things not translating well (though the book was very understandable) , the missing blocks of time, or the lack of happiness. A River of Darkness will never be among my favorite books and I will probably never reread it. I will however recommend anyone read it once especially if you enjoy knowledge of other countries and true stories.

Maybe his own words say it best  “And now? Now I have just one thing left. My only true possession. I’m sorry to say that it’s bitterness. Bitterness at the cruelty of life.” Nothing can dispel or take away the bitterness in Masaji life and it translates into his writing.

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