A River in Darkness: Review


One of my 2018 intentions is to read more nonfiction this year and A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea actually seemed pretty timely. With everything happening in the world, it felt important to better understand the origins and conditions of North Korea. And so I dove into one of the most harrowing and upsetting books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.


The harrowing true story of one man’s life in—and subsequent escape from—North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes.

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.


A River in Darkness is not for the faint of heart. Ishikawa narrates this story- his story- as he experienced it, without embellishment. It is raw, it is powerful, and it is gripping. I confess that I was largely ignorant of the origins of North Korea and the brutal conditions that the world has come to associate the regime with. Ishikawa answered many of my questions very bluntly and without emotion. But in reading about how displaced Koreans in Japan were lulled into migrating to North Korea under the false promises of a better life and the ability to speak and embrace their native culture once again, I felt anger. The Japanese government turned a blind eye and in fact encouraged the mass migration of Koreans out of their country. Humanitarian organizations and the "civilized west" were aware of the propaganda and conditions of North Korea, yet they also did nothing to warn these migrants.


And so, Ishikawa- born to a Japanese mother and Korean father, and a young boy who knew nothing outside of living as a Japanese citizen- moved to North Korea with his family. I will spare you the details of growing up in North Korea but needless to say, they were horrific. I cringed several times while reading this true story, at the impoverished conditions being detailed, and at how much I take for granted in my own life. 

Ishikawa was eventually able to escape North Korea by crossing a river into China. There, he was able to contact Japanese authorities who negotiated with Chinese authorities over his return to Japan. It was done covertly. If Chinese authorities or North Korean spies caught whiff of him, Ishikawa would be sent back to North Korea and likely sentenced to death. He did it make back to his country of birth safely. However, he has yet to be acknowledged as a Japanese resident because doing so wold acknowledge his rescue during a sensitive political period. 

A River in Darkness is less than two hundred pages but I felt that I lived a lifetime with Ishikawa in those pages. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who seeks to better understand the conditions of living in North Korea as only someone who has lived through the grief can describe. There is no media representation that can accurately capture a human's lived experiences in the way that Ishikawa could, in his own words. 

I rate A River in Darkness 5/5 stars.

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