Share 6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

Alice Martin is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Rutgers University, where she obsesses over nineteenth-century women writers, the history of the publishing industry, and writing practices. She’s also a regular contributor to Shelf Awareness and a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Appalachian Heritage, and Sixfold among other publications. You can find her talking about books, food, and basketball (in that order) on Twitter @AliceJeanMartin.

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, honor its memory with one of these six incredible novels about this complex conflict. Tracing the intricate roots of trauma through the 1930s and ’40s Japanese colonial presence in Korea, into World War II, and beyond the Korean War and its aftermath, these books take a decades-long approach to understanding the war and its resonances. From POW camps to orphanages, diasporic communities in foreign lands to domestic spaces hiding dark secrets, these books take deeply intimate looks at a variety of fronts on which the war was fought, both public and private. Haunting, evocative, and full of vivid historical detail, these novels will illuminate new sides of this not-so-long-ago conflict. 


Snow Hunters
by Paul Yoon

In this heartrending novel, twenty-five-year-old Yohan flees to Brazil as a North Korean POW refugee. While Yohan feels consistently out of step with his strange surroundings, he does meet new people who fascinate him: the Japanese tailor he works for, the groundskeeper at the local church, and the two children who populate his back alley. In order to get closer to these people and make a new home, Yohan will have to reveal his past trauma and let go of his previous life. 

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Snow Hunters
Paul Yoon

Winner of the Young Lions Fiction Award, Snow Hunters is “a subtle, elegant, poignant read” (Oprah.com), featuring a Korean War refugee who emigrates to Brazil to become a tailor’s apprentice and confronts the wreckage of his past.

“Exquisitely enigmatic…a small but radiant star in the current literary firmament” (The Dallas Morning News), Snow Hunters traces the extraordinary journey of Yohan, a twenty-five-year-old North Korean POW refugee who defects from his country at the end of the Korean War, leaving his friends and family behind to seek a new life in a port town on the coast of Brazil.

Though he is a stranger in a strange land, throughout the years in this town, four people slip in and out of Yohan’s life: Kiyoshi, the Japanese tailor for whom he works, and who has his own secrets and a past he does not speak of; Peixe, the groundskeeper at the town church; and two vagrant children named Santi and Bia, a boy and a girl, who spend their days in the alleyways and the streets of the town. Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so he must sift through the wreckage of his traumatic past so he might let go and move on.

In Snow Hunters, “quotidian-surreal craft-master” (New York magazine) Paul Yoon proves love can dissolve loneliness; that hope can wipe away despair; and that a man who lost a country can find a new home. “The brief, simple sentences that form this elegant tone poem of a novel…have the effect of making you slow down to read them—which is a fitting way to experience the story of a man unmoored by memory and time” (Entertainment Weekly). This is a heartrending story of second chances, told with unerring elegance and absolute tenderness.

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6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

By Alice Martin | May 26, 2020

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The Investigation
by J. M. Lee

J. M. Lee’s THE INVESTIGATION begins as a murder mystery and becomes an exploration of wartime secrets and the power of humanity. Watanabe, a young Korean prison guard, is ordered to investigate the murder of a fellow guard. While a prisoner has confessed, Watanabe senses there is more to the story. After interviewing Yun Dong-Ju, a talented poet who knows too much, Watanabe realizes the institution’s truly dark and violent depths and becomes dedicated to protecting Yun Dong-Ju, no matter the cost. 

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The Investigation
J. M. Lee

Watanabe Yuichi, a young guard with a passion for reading, is ordered to investigate. The victim, Sugiyama, also a guard, was feared and despised throughout the prison and inquiries have barely begun when a powerful inmate confesses. But Watanbe is unconvinced; and as he interrogates both the suspect and Yun Dong-ju, a talented Korean poet, he starts to realize that the fearsome guard was not all he appeared to be...As Watanbe unravels Sugiyama's final months, he begins to discover what is really going on inside this dark and violent institution, which few inmates survive: a man who will stop at nothing to dig his way to freedom; a governor whose greed knows no bounds; a little girl whose kite finds an unlikely friend. And Yun Dong-ju—the poet whose works hold such beauty the can break the hardest of hearts. As the war moves towards its devastating close and bombs rain down upon the prison, Watanbe realizes that he must find a way to protect Yun Dong-ju, no matter what it takes. As he digs further and further in to his investigation, the young guard discovers a devastating truth.At once a captivating mystery and an epic lament for lost freedom and humanity, The Investigation, inspired by a true story, is a sweeping and gripping tale by an international literary star.

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MENTIONED IN:

6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

By Alice Martin | May 26, 2020

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The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

Bestselling author Lisa See tells the story of two childhood friends pushed to the limit by national trauma. Mi-ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-sook, the daughter of a famed female Korean diver, may be different, but they have always been drawn to each other. They both join Young-sook’s mother’s diving collective as soon as they are old enough. The community becomes their bedrock through World War II, the Korean War, and its aftermath, all of which threaten to pull them apart. 

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

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If You Leave Me
by Crystal Hana Kim

Haemi has always loved her childhood friend Kyunghwan. But after she, her brother, and her mother are forced to leave their home by the communist-backed army from the north and become refugees during the Korean War, Haemi decides to marry Kyunghwan’s wealthy cousin to provide her family with security. This fateful decision sets off a series of consequences that echo through the decades. Part love story, part family saga, IF YOU LEAVE ME is a beautiful, engrossing journey about love, family, and sacrifice. 

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If You Leave Me
Crystal Hana Kim

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MENTIONED IN:

6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

By Alice Martin | May 26, 2020

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The Surrendered
by Chang-rae Lee

Masterful and haunting, The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee tells the profound story of what it means to put full trust and love in another. June, orphaned by the Korean War, and Hector Brennan, a young GI who fled his small hometown, are brought together in the aftermath of the war. At a Korean orphanage, they vie for the approval of a beautiful but troubled missionary, Sylvie Tanner. As the three orbit around one another, they are forced to confront questions of self-sacrifice and true love. 

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The Surrendered
Chang-rae Lee

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6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

By Alice Martin | May 26, 2020

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War Trash
by Ha Jin

Yu Yuan, a Chinese clerical officer, is taken prisoner during the Korean War and thrown into a POW camp. Yuan’s astute observations provide new insight into the dark experiences behind the fences. Yuan’s knowledge of English quickly makes him the translator between Chinese and American prisoners. But the complex relationships among prisoners prove volatile and soon Yuan recognizes that there is more to fear from prisoners than from the guards. Ambitious and original, War Trash is a raw, emotional look at the dark corners of war. 

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War Trash
Ha Jin

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MENTIONED IN:

6 Powerful Novels that Capture the Impact of the Korean War

By Alice Martin | May 26, 2020

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