After I read The Guest, which was about North Korea, a friend of mine recommended this book as it was one of her very favourite books. So we agreed to read it together at some point. I can say now, that I am extremely grateful for the recommendation because I have really enjoyed reading it. I’d never heard about it before and perhaps, who knows, if I’d ever have got around to reading it otherwise.
As I said in my review of The Guest, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to Korean history as I fell asleep during those parts of history lessons. Unfortunately, when I was a teen I decided that most history that happened after 1945 was boring and thus unimportant so other than the most basic of facts, I knew very little about this period of history.
Reading books like this, though they are fiction, awakes in me a desire to learn more about the Korean war. I often find that it takes a good fiction book to alight in me an extra interest in exploring a particular theme or subject. That is what I love about reading certain books like this, which allow you to see through someone’s eyes, heart and feeling – a certain time, or culture, or way of thinking different from your own.
The story starts off in the modern day from Anna’s perspective. Her mother is Korean and her father American. For most of her life she finds herself wedged between two different worlds. She spends her teenage years wanting to forget that she was Korean and identifying more with her American roots. This rejection of her other side has in part damaged the relationship she shares with her mother, whom for most of her life she does not fully understand.
When her Uncle arrives from South Korea to stay with them for a few years – the differences between her culture and his become even more apparent. Yet as she grows older, that sense of another identity begins to draw her closer to wanting to build bridges with the other side of her family. When her Uncle returns to Korea, Anna realises that a part of herself is missing. She is going nowhere in her life and she finds herself increasingly disassociated from her current life. So, she decides that she will travel to Korea, to discover that part of herself that for so long she has denied.
Most of the book however is not about Anna. It is about Anna’s mother and her family as they grow up in Korea. For so many years, Korea has been attacked and invaded by Japan. The series of atrocities that has happened to the country seemed endless.
The Japanese took their lands, forced them to speak Japanese and tried to wipe out any sense of identity from the people. However, despite the oppressive Japanese rule, the Korean spirit and independence remained underneath, despite the heavy burden.
It is sad to think that after finally coming free from the Japanese, that finally they could be Korean again and speak their own language and be able to display who they were openly, that the Korean war happened and the country was forced in two, where both halves could be no more different from the other.
One Thousand Chestnut Trees is not just about the identity of one person, but about the identity of a whole nation of people. Anna will forever straddle being not truly American, but also, not truly Korean either. At home she is Oriental, but in Korea where she seeks to find some lost part of herself, she is seen as too Western. Korea on the other hand also has its own divide – two halves that for sixty years have not been reconciled. One half is communist, the other half is capitalist. One rejects the west completely, and the other has adopted a more westernised way of life.
The parts from Anna’s perspective were sometimes too wordy and too descriptive. Metaphors and similes were layered on so thickly that it put a distant wedge between the reader and character. Maybe this stand-offishness was the author’s intention though. However, I felt that Stout was trying to hard to make Anna’s voice distinct from her mother’s which was more simple and natural in style.
Overall, this is a really good book, especially if like me you are not well acquainted with this part of history. Stout does not side step around the horrors of war or what happened, but nor does she dwell on gory details – some of it merely relayed as historical fact. I think it is written in mind that the reader will not know very much about the Korean War. The perspective is mostly from that of a child or teenager, so for the most part without any major political understanding or involvement.