Book Review: The Last Exiles by Ann Shin

July 19th, 2021 – Kayla Thompson, Adult Services Coordinator

 Suja, an intern with the Rodong Workers Newspaper, and Jin, a scholarship student from the countryside, are born into vastly different North Korean social circles but meet during their years at university and fall in love anyway. Suja’s family has social status. Her father is a prominent editor of the newspaper and her mother’s family has ties with the government. Jin, though witty and smart, comes from a family of poor farmers who have been hit hard during Korea’s newest flooding disaster and food shortage.

Where Jin is from, things are tight and only getting worse as the days go by. But life for Suja seems to hardly change at all. That is until Jin goes home for term break and comes back looking worse for wear. Things escalate shortly after when he is arrested in front of his entire class for stealing grain from the Supreme Leader. For Jin, this means being whisked away to a prison with no hope of return. For Suja, this means confronting her privilege, the lies of her government, and her way of life and the love that she has for Jin. 

Through in vastly different circumstances, both lovers individually decide to defect from North Korea and escape to China for a new life and a chance at love. Jin escapes prison and finds his way across the river bordering the two countries to a small farm house. Suja takes her life into her own hands and uses the black market and the aid of North Korean brokers to find passage across the borders to search for Jin. Will they be able to reunite and start the lives they have always dreamed of creating together? 

Ann Shin’s novel The Last Exiles, though about 336 pages long, was a pretty quick read. The author’s captivating voice, well developed characters, and moving plot all come together and keep the reader turning pages. Shin doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of North Korea and the lives that many people have to lead. Shin’s writing hits on topics of famine, political corruption, sex trafficking, indentured servitude, and the violence and abuse that many North Koran people have had to, and continue to, endure. It’s dirty and gritty and at times unpleasant, but her characters show a strength and resilience that is both moving and encouraging. 

This book has been one of my favorites this year and I highly recommend picking it up at the library if you get the chance. Especially if you have read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which is about a South Korean family through the generations from the Japanese occupation of Korea onward. It is a story about family, faith, and identity and the struggles within them. And if you are looking for something else to read in the meantime give Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter a try!

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