Mark Sampson’s sophomore novel is cast as two parallel stories that eventually weave together with the precision of a tatami mat. Right from the start, readers are bludgeoned by the story of “Meiko,” barely a teen when she and other Korean girls are spirited away to China to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. The so-called “comfort women” are held in filthy pens and raped repeatedly, some up to 35 times a day. Meiko – her Korean name, which is forbidden, is Eun-young – is beaten, burned with cigarettes and hot pokers, has her face slashed, and battles genital infections given to her by predatory and merciless soldiers.
Fast forward 60 years. Michael Barrett, a disgraced reporter in his late twenties, is a Canadian teaching English in Seoul amid the “techno and bright spinning lights and boys with boners in their cargo pants.” He senses something sinister in the way women are sexualized by the foreign teaching community.
The bookish and introverted Barrett takes a Korean girlfriend, Jin, even as he struggles to come to grips with the behaviour of his teaching buddies, who, unfettered in a foreign country, feel liberated from social norms to the extent that they become sexual neo-colonialists. Barrett’s relationship with Jin eventually brings him into the presence of Eun-young (the sister of Jin’s grandmother), who has forsaken her husband to live a life of loneliness in a mouldy basement apartment.
Sampson captures the beer-fuelled jocularity of 21st-century Seoul nightlife, as well as the traditions of Korean society and family. The dark side of Eastern tradition is revealed in the fact that nobody in Jin’s family wants to acknowledge Eun-young: her relatives would rather she keep her “shame” to herself.
Two questions dominate the novel. Can Eun-young, now in her seventies, give voice to her story before death finally catches up to her? And will Barrett find the motivation to write a book exposing the scandal of the Korean comfort women, even after Jin reluctantly dumps him? The fact that readers are so emotionally engaged in discovering the answers to these questions indicates that the author has done a lot right here.