Ten Thousand Sorrows
Ten Thousand Sorrows starts with its young narrator watching her mother's murder; improbably, things go downhill from there. "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood," Frank McCourt famously wrote in Angela's Ashes. But McCourt's hardscrabble youth looks like a walk in the park compared to the experiences of Elizabeth Kim. The child of an illicit union between a Korean mother and an American father, Kim grows up the object of disgust and contempt in rural Korea. As a honhyol, or mixed-race child, she isn't considered a person at all.
Yet her mother refuses to sell her into servitude, and for that show of compassion she pays with her life. In the harrowing scene that opens the book, Kim watches from a hiding place as her mother--the victim of a so-called honor killing--is hanged from a rafter: "All I could see through the bamboo slats were her bare feet, dangling in midair. I watched those milk-white feet twitch, almost with the rhythm of the Hwagwan-mu dance, and then grow still." Left alone in the world, without so much as a name or date of birth, Kim ends up in an orphanage where she spends hours on end locked in a crib that resembles a cage. Things ought to look up when an American
couple adopts her. Instead, one form of abuse merely replaces another, as the pastor and his wife tell Kim that her mother "left her to die in a rice paddy" and immediately take away any toy or pet to which she develops an attachment. Later, Kim escapes into a young marriage (arranged, naturally, by her fundamentalist parents), only to find no refuge there either. Surely there is a special place in hell reserved for her husband, the kind of pathological sadist who becomes aroused only by inflicting pain.
By this point, the reader begins to feel like something of a sadist herself. It's a tribute to Kim's skill as a writer that we can't look away from her pain, even when it might feel more comfortable to do so. True, she does leave her husband, make herself a new life with her daughter, begin a journalism career without benefit of training or degree--all of which demonstrates an amazing tenacity and inner strength. Yet the latter half of the book employs the familiar vocabulary of healing without doing much to convince. Reconciled with her experiences, Kim doesn't necessarily seem to have finished processing them. Her book has all the raw urgency of a call to 911: it feels written for the author's very survival. --Chloe Byrne