Monday, April 21, 2008

Review: The Ginseng Hunter

Summary: Set at the turn of the twenty-first century in China along the Tumen River, which separates northeast China and North Korea, The Ginseng Hunter is an unforgettable portrait of life along a fragile border.

A Chinese ginseng hunter lives alone in the valley and spends his days up in the mountains looking for ginseng and preparing for winter. He is scarcely aware of the larger world until shadowy figures hiding in the fields, bodies floating in the river, and rumors of thievery and murder begin to intrude on his cherished solitude. On one of his monthly trips to Yanji, where he buys supplies and visits a brothel, he meets a young North Korean prostitute. Through her vivid tales, the tragedy occurring across the river unfolds, and over the course of the year the hunter unnervingly discovers that the fates of the young woman and four others rest in his hands.

Spare, intimate, and strikingly atmospheric, The Ginseng Hunter takes us into the little-understood lives of North Koreans and confirms Jeff Talarigo's immense gift for storytelling.

The Ginseng Hunter is based on actual events that are happening today in North Korea, also known as the DPRK, and along the Northeast border of China, to where many North Korean refugees flee.

THE GINSENG HUNTER by Jeff Talarigo was a rather short novel; however, it certainly packs a powerful punch. I have no doubt that the story and the characters will stay with me for a long time. This book is actually based on present-day, real-life occurences along the Northeast border of China; and maybe that's another reason why the story touched me so much. I just can't believe what a desperate situation these people face under the North Korean government.

The main character was extremely complex and very human. At times he was weak and scared, yet he was also extremely sensitive and compassionate. He lived in the mountains totally in seclusion except for his once-a-month trip to town (and a brothel.) He becomes close to one of the prostitutes and has to choose between helping her and losing his privacy. He continues to face this decision a few more times throughout the story; and he is deeply troubled each time.

I thought it was odd that the reader never learns the names of the characters in this book. We are privy to their actions and their thoughts but it's still weird to me that the author never reveals their names. In an interview with Mr. Talirigo, he explains his reason for this: "I chose not to give my characters names because I wanted to whittle this complex story down to the individual, to make the story as simple as possible, and more accessible to the reader."

I read Mr. Talarigo's first novel, THE PEARL DIVER, when it first came out. I remember enjoying the book about a Japanese woman with leprosy and appreciating his writing style, but I think I liked this book even more. The author actually conducted in-depth research for this novel -- he camped on the Chinese side of the Tumen River and interviewed North Korean refugees. I am in awe of not only the story he tells in this book, but his writing style as well. His prose and descriptions are beautiful, and I could clearly visualize every scene in this book.

I love this quotation by Mr. Talarigo in which he explains the difference between fiction and non-fiction, "Non-fiction and journalism recount a story, whereas fiction, I think, recreates the story and thus it can reveal a deeper truth." I think he accomplished what he set out to do with this novel and definitely revealed a deeper truth. THE GINSENG HUNTER was an amazing piece of fiction.


LisaMM said...

Julie, I know you have kids so I just don't understand how you can read as much as you do!! It seems you're cranking out a book review every other day. How do you do that?? I'm lucky if I can finish one a week.

This is another top notch review. I also find it odd that the author would choose not to give his characters names.. I wouldn't think that would make them more accessible, as he stated (quite the opposite, if you ask me!) The only other book I can think of that did that was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and that annoyed the heck out of me!

Amy said...

Looks like another good book!

It's like the film character names. More noticeable in a book, though. :)

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading fiction set in China, mostly because I've visited there, my husband is Chinese and one of my daughters is adopted from China. Thanks for the insightful review.