North Korea has long fascinated storytellers, including author J. M. Lee. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, Lee’s latest novel translated into English, uses the Hermit Kingdom as the backdrop for a tale of defectors, destiny, and hope. A labyrinthine book that weaves through Pyongyang’s choreographed celebrations to Yanji’s back alleys to Seoul’s refugee community, The Boy delivers a haunting journey through the eyes of a young man with Asperger syndrome.
Ahn Gil-mo was 11 when the North Korean school system discovered he was a math genius. Because of his talent, he was relocated to the capital city with his family and enjoyed a life of relative comfort—for a short time. Within a year, his family was arrested after his father was discovered to be a practicing Christian. Separated from his family in a prison camp, Gil-mo befriends a girl, Yong-ae, and ultimately escapes the camp to search for her after she is freed.
Gil-mo’s quest to find Yong-ae takes him from the red light districts of border cities to the high-risk-high-reward world of Shanghai, where he uses fake passports, assumed names, and his math skills to survive. But the law eventually catches up with Gil-mo, and he tells his story from FBI custody as a suspect for crimes ranging from fraud to murder.
Jumping back and forth between Gil-mo’s years on the run and his interrogation by the FBI makes for a clunky and rushed narrative at times, but the novel still offers a fascinating story reminiscent of a North Korean Slumdog Millionaire. This, of course, isn’t a true-to-life tale, but Lee successfully reveals how fortunes can change overnight for society’s most vulnerable refugees. Gil-mo ricochets from wealth to poverty and comfort to danger numerous times, relying on the kindness of others to make ends meet.
Gil-mo’s Asperger’s adds another layer to the narrative, although one that doesn’t feel played out. His fixation on finding Yong-ae is endearing and his math abilities save the day more than once, but there is a sense of exploitation just below the surface. Gil-mo is capable but gullible, willing to retreat into numbers whenever given the chance and unable to see the people’s possible motives for helping him. This mires him in drug rings, fraudulent charity organizations, and other schemes that put him in danger.
Yong-ae herself is more a master manipulator than a damsel in distress. Having defected a few months before Gil-mo, she strings him along when she needs his help. There’s a sadness to their one-sided relationship that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings, underscoring how vulnerable Gil-mo truly is as he moves through the world by himself.
Despite a complex framework that doesn’t always do the story justice, the novel hits a satisfactory end that feels authentic. Lee’s novel touches on the literary need for character-driven stories that move beyond the strangeness and horror of life under the North Korean state. This, along with its thriller-like pace, make The Boy Who Escaped Paradise worth a read.