Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong

princess-BariIn the North Korean city of Chongjin, a seventh daughter is born in 1983 to a couple longing for a son. Abandoned hours after her birth, she is dragged away by the family dog and eventually rescued by her grandmother. The old woman names the child “Bari”, after a Korean legend telling of a similarly forsaken princess who undertakes a quest for an elixir that will bring peace to the souls of the dead.

Princess Bari is a beautiful and rewarding novel that uses the retelling of a legend to produce a story for our times. Bari journeys in both the tangible, physical world that we reside in and the spirit world of the dead as she seeks freedom for herself and the people she meets on the way.Her escape to London from extreme poverty in North Korea is made all the more harrowing that I read it alongside news reports of hundreds of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean trying to make similar journeys from North Africa. The crossover from fiction to rolling news and the power of the author’s descriptions are devastating and make refusal to respond to this humanitarian crisis unbearable.

Bari’s is a story of endurance through suffering and it is impossible not to feel emotionally attached to her and yearn for a world that seeks to share and heal suffering. Why do we not reach out to those who suffer and help to heal them? Why do we see everything in financial terms rather than seeing the people affected? Why do we only seek a skewed justice that is suited to our own ends rather than true justice?

The jewel of this story is in Bari’s walk through the spirit world and her eventual understanding of the fabled life giving water that she seeks. It is only through this spiritual understanding that we can hope to answer the physical questions that have been raised and at the end of her journey Bari speaks truths to the people she has met that we all need to hear.

This is a beautiful novel filled with wisdom that would be suited to reading and then re-reading at different stages of life from teens to old age. The style is simple and accessible in the manner of the folk tales that it draws from, allowing it to be read in just a few sittings but reflected upon long afterwards.

Princess Bari is published on 27 April 2015 by Periscope Books and you can find out more about them at their website

Hwang Sok-yong, one of Asia’s most renowned authors, was born in 1943. In 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in a South Korean prison for a “breach of national security”, having made an unauthorised trip to North Korea to promote artist exchanges between the North and South. Five years later, he was released on a special pardon by the new South Korean president. He is the recipient of South Korea’s most prestigious literary prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Prix Femina Étranger.