Review: Forgotten Reflections by Young-Im Lee

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☆☆➹⁀☆4 stars☆➹⁀☆☆


What it’s about:


1945. Rice fields seem endless in a quaint farming village of South Korea, yet Iseul the villagers have been starving for as long as they can remember. Their Japanese colonizers have taken every last grain with them as they are finally forced out of the Peninsula. In the newly independent Korea, Iseul and Jung-Soo dream of what their future might bring. Yet, war is on the horizon, and Iseul has fallen for an alleged North Korean communist spy.

Men are conscripted and rice is taken to feed the growing army as the Peninsula is thrust into an international war that would determine if the strategic region will become communist or democratic. With nothing but the news of death and hunger awaiting the village of women, children and the aged, Iseul musters up whatever hope she has left to bring the village together to make paper. Soon, the village once known for its rice, becomes famous for its paper, becoming a beacon of hope for their battle-worn soldiers awaiting letters from their loved ones.

Yet spies and communists continue to roam South Korea, turning neighbors and families against one another. For years, Jung-Soo has been suspicious of his father’s allegiances. With a series of mysterious revelations about his father, Jung-Soo is forced to choose between his tainted communist past, and the future he hopes to have with Iseul after the war.

In the current international climate where North Korea takes center stage, “Forgotten Reflections” weaves an inspirational tale of family, lost memories, folklore and an unforgotten history, spanning three generations as South Korea rises from the ashes.

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Guest Reviewer Fran’s Thoughts:

Forgotten Reflections was a great story because it had so many things going on at the same time. It intertwined stories of past and present into a thought-provoking and intriguing novel. The plot is about love, friendship, classes, family, culture, politics and war. The multigenerational story spans over three generations, starting with the granddaughter Jia narrating from present day. Jia is trying to find out what really happened to her grandmother Iseul during the tumultuous Korean War period, 1945-50. In the opening, Jia describes her grandmother lying in a hospital bed with Alzheimer’s disease with a loving man by her side. But who is this man? Who is her grandfather? Jia has so many questions and a lot of puzzle pieces that she is anxious to fit together.

Jia’s family is very traditional; they want her to stop filling her head with family stories and instead study for the national final exams that will enable her to get a good job and better herself within society. Against her mother’s wishes, Jia skips out of studying at the library and goes to her Iseul’s home town, Yeoju. This small town on the peninsula was once a rice farming province in Central Korea that ended up being instrumental in the Forgotten Korean War. Jia learns secrets from Iseul’s past about how her grandmother—and the women, children and elderly in her town—fought against the tyranny of a dictator and defended democracy.

The characters are rich and believable. The tale masterfully unfolds as they grow up and experience friendships, love and deceit. The two main characters are Iseul and Jung-Soo. An arrogant young boy, Jung-Soo comes to the small town of Yeoju as the son of a wealthy, influential politician who we later find out may be a North Korean spy. Jung-Soo and Iseul fall in love and plan their life together, but Jung-Soo’s father has other plans for his son. Jung-Soo has to escape the village and join the army, only to learn his father was involved with the enemy (the Japanese), and that he provided them with information on how to capture the town’s hidden rice storage. Ashamed and disgraced, Jung-Soo has to escape from the village and joins the South Korean army. He meets Dae-Gun and they travel together between villages and army camps to bring coded messages to the Generals. The development of their friendship, their very different upbringings, and how they work through their struggles all become an integral part of the story.

As Iseul and Jung-Soo grow up and learn to cope with the war, they both find solace in music and use their skills as a radio technician and a carpenter to bring hope to the battle-worn soldiers of South Korea. Iseul brings her small village together and gives them hope. Together they make handcrafted hanji paper that they give to soldiers, enabling them to send notes home to their family and loved ones. The small village, once known as a rice-farming town, instead becomes known for the young carpenter woman who makes paper and brings hope to her country.

The novel is a bit long with over 500 pages, but this historical thriller has a plot that was well paced and keeps your attention to the very end. Finally the reader learns: Who is that loving man sitting at Iseul’s bedside?

My only criticisms were that there were some grammatical mistakes and a few words left out of sentences. Overall, however, it was an amazing read and I recommend it highly.

About the Author:

Young-Im Lee was born in South Korea and immediately moved to the Philippines. She was raised in an international environment that is politically open minded and progressive. She has a BA from Seoul National University and a MA from the University of York in the UK. Both degrees are in English Literary studies. The book is dedicated to both of her grandmothers who are invaluable sources of inspiration and always lent a non-judgmental ear.

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