A breathtaking true story of a rescue mission undertaken by a young woman and her family in one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Helie Lee often had heard her grandmother speak of an uncle, lost decades ago when he was a child during the family’s daring escape from North Korea. As an adult, he was still living there under horrid conditions. When her grandmother began to ail, Helie became determined to reunite her with her eldest son, despite tremendous odds. Helie’s mission became even more urgent when she realized that her first book, the bestselling novel Still Life with Rice, about the family’s escape, might have angered the North Korean government and put her uncle in danger.
Pushing through rivers and forests, fighting the cold, bribing and manipulating border guards, gangsters, and secret service agents, Helie and her father finally achieve their goal. But there are many hurdles. Her uncle is forced to make a harrowing choice: leave his North Korean family behind or continue to live in oppression and starvation away from his beloved mother. And Helie has to face her deep, sometimes ambivalent, emotions about her identity in the family and as a Korean American woman. Unmarried and outspoken, she struggles in Korea, where women marry early and keep silent, and writes eloquently about the landscape there, both literal and cultural. She comes through a heartbreaking love affair only to face an intense and confusing relationship with the Guide—the man who, despite being crude and macho, ultimately helps to save her uncle and eventually his extended family through several daring acts of heroism.
In the Absence of Sun is a riveting adventure story and a powerful tale of family bonds and reunion.
“An eerie fear crawled through my flesh as I stood on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, gazing across the murky water into one of the most closed-off and isolated countries in the world. I couldn’t believe it. Even as my boots sank into the doughy mud, I had trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was actually standing there. . . . I was not prepared for the kind of despair and insane fear I felt that day. My wizened old uncle looked nothing like the sweet-faced teenager in the faded photograph that Halmoni kept pressed between the pages of her Bible. That day, at the Yalu River, staring helplessly into his terrorized face, I hadn’t fully realized what a dangerous thing I had done the year before. I had placed him and his family in danger. By including details of my uncle’s life in a book, I had alerted North Korea’s enigmatic leadership to the identity of my relatives in a nation where it was better to remain invisible.” —From In the Absence of Sun
Lee's bestselling debut, Still Life with Rice (1996), created quite a stir. It chronicled Lee's grandmother's 1950 escape from northern to southern Korea during a civil war that separated the Koreas and tore Lee's grandmother's family apart, as her eldest son, Lee Yong Woon, did not make it out of the north. Lee (who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and now lives in Los Angeles) used her uncle's real name in Still Life and included his picture. Once that book became available in South Korea, Lee's family was notified that her book had placed her relatives in North Korea in danger. Nonetheless, Lee promised her grandmother that she would see her son again, thus undertaking a daring mission chronicled here to reunite the family. The account is a gripping and inspiring one, and Lee's prose resonates with a poetic sensibility. She also brings a distinctly American perspective to the entire situation. At times, the author's desire to make the story her own (including a long segue into her relationship with her boyfriend) steal some of the swiftness and urgency from a story that ultimately belongs to her entire family. But an all-out thrilling escape story, complete with dangerous border crossings, unexpected romance and touching family moments, makes for a terrific and beautiful chronicle. Lee reflects, "I believe one family, one person, one action can make a difference, because we are all connected. When we realize this connection, peace is possible." B&w photos not seen by PW.