BOOK REVIEW: The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

The Kinship of Secrets tells the tale of two sisters: one raised in the United States, the other in South Korea. It is a story of war, devastation, fear and hope. Most importantly, it is a story about the importance of family and everything it means to be a sister. It is a story which everyone needs to hear.

Having been left behind in Korea when she was a baby, Inja had no concrete memory of her family. They appeared to her as shadow people, their smiles as still as the few photographs they sent.

Author Eugenia Kim had an exciting and explosive entry into the literary world. Her debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, won a number of prizes. It was even chosen as the Best Historical Novel of 2009 by the Washington Post. No pressure for her second novel, then.

Smoke fringed the northern skyline above the hills, deceptively graceful tendrils billowing from missiles and fires lit by the invading Red Army.

Luckily for Kim, this book doesn’t disappoint. The Kinship of Secrets is told in five parts: War, Armistice, Reconstruction, Reunion, Home. While this is a historical dive into the second half of the 20th century (specifically the Korean War and its consequences), it is not a textbook description of events. Think of this as a human historical novel: one which explores how history impacts the lives of real and innocent individuals.

Miran agreed to keep her long hair neatened into a braid or knotted in a bun, wear skirts and dresses – ergo the sewing – never to curse in any language, eat everything offered but not the entire portion, avoiding blowing her nose as if it were a trumpet, avoid laughing out loud and showing all her teeth, and to not smoke cigarettes, which an hour into their flight was Miran’s most difficult concession.

Not only does Kim describe around twenty years of history in America and Korea, but she captures each culture with the intimacy and detail it deserves. One minute, we’re in an American classroom with Miran. The next, we’re eating soup in Seoul with Inja. Kim transitions between both countries seamlessly, often through the use of letters being sent back and forth. Somewhere in the story we realise that, despite our cultural traditions and practices, we aren’t as different from one another as we might think.

A thin pink light seeped through the high window, and she folded her bedding, conscious that each act of her daily routine would soon be replaced, forever, and by something unknown.

This isn’t an easy book to read. Not only is there a wide cast of characters and a large scope of history to follow, but the stories inside are emotionally dense. If you’re looking for a summer beach read, this probably isn’t it. However, if you’re looking for an important story which is equally heart-breaking and heart-warming, this is the book for you.

She would, in silence but through her actions, embrace her role as the eldest daughter for her parents, her uncle, aunt and cousins, her sister, for all her family.

In her author’s note, Eugenia Kim writes that her family used to give presentations to church groups to educate Americans about the Korean War, which she describes as ‘a little-known war, in a small unknown country’. Such education is important for general historical context, but it is equally important to realise the sheer amount of voices which deserve to be heard and stories which need to be told. Although The Kinship of Secrets is not a memoir, it is fiction with feeling between the lines. It is fiction with a basis in a tragic reality. A reality we all need to read about.

The Kinship of Secrets is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Eugenia Kim

Eugenia Kim is the daughter of Korean parents who immigrated to America shortly after the Pacific War. She has published short stories and essays in journals and anthologies, including Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings, and is an MFA graduate of Bennington College. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is her first novel.

Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko

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