Brandon W. Jones’ debut novel, All Woman And Springtime, starts off as a gripping depiction of life in North Korea, but the story gets weaker as soon as the protagonists cross the demilitarized zone. While Jones offers strong writing and rich characterization, his plot is sometimes wearyingly brutal, forcing his protagonists to hit a deep nadir that makes their eventual redemption more unlikely than satisfying.
The story primarily follows two girls—the once-privileged Il-sun and teenager Gyong-ho, a survivor of a forced labor camp—as they become childhood friends growing up in a North Korean orphanage. Jones offers a simultaneously sweet and chilling look at coming of age, as Il-sun explores her sexuality and desire for independence in a country defined by obeisance and self-effacement. His depiction of Gyong-ho is deeply disturbing. Desperately grateful for her second chance to please the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, she truly believes she lives in the greatest and most prosperous nation in the world, in spite of 12-hour days of menial labor with almost no breaks or food. Minor characters’ insights into the country’s government, military, and underworld are equally compelling, and it’s a shame that they all get left behind after the first of the novel’s four parts.
Il-sun’s rebellion goes nowhere good, and the two are forced to leave the country, and wind up sold into the South Korean sex trade. On their first day, a veteran prostitute tells them that what their customers are really looking for is not pleasure, but self-esteem and validation. The male clients are never given any real depth, but the lesson is just part of Jones’ overall theme that almost no one really gets what they want. Even the book’s antagonists are made mildly more sympathetic because they’ve become victimizers, due to their own failed ambitions. While they cling hard, Il-sun’s simple dream of a family and relative comfort and Gyong-ho’s wish to be with Il-sun are eventually shattered. But the protagonists’ separation, first mentally and then physically, brings the book to its weakest point.
It’s a testament to Jones’ skill that he doesn’t fall into any easy clichés like having a sympathetic john or madam rescue the women from their captivity. Instead, all the struggle, accomplishments, and failures rest solely on their inner strength and ability to overcome their fears of death, injury, starvation, and the propaganda they’ve accepted as truth. It adds a needed touch of empowerment to a story that could easily have been purely exploitative.