A South Korean military parade in 1973 honouring president Park Chung-hee, whose rigid, conservative nation serves as the stark backdrop in Everything Belongs to Us.

Book review: Everything Belongs to Us – story of elite university students in post-war Korea and their personal struggles

Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel follows the lives of a group of Seoul National University students in the late 1970s, when South Korea had forsaken personal liberties for economic growth

Everything Belongs to Us

by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Random House

3/5 stars

South Korea was not always the prosperous, democratic country it is now. Just a few decades ago, back in the late 1970s, it was relatively poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. This is the turbulent backdrop against which Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz takes place.

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at the prestigious Seoul National University, the best school in the country. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, useful connections and personal advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates.

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But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything – though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the university’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He also becomes entranced by Namin and starts dating her, but their relationship gets complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark real-world problems including violent factory worker protests and a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers. There is also the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister, who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI, who later leaves her. This in particular brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin.

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, author of Everything Belongs to Us.

These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. It can at times, however, seem as if too much is going on, with plot elements such as the Circle introduced then quickly discarded.

Everything Belongs to Us is set in a post-war Korea that has not yet reached first-world status. The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea that are not about the Korean war. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not very well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

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From Namin’s sparse working-class home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, the settings vary but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee – the father of the recently impeached Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president – South Korea is portrayed as a rigid, conservative nation that prohibits dissent and has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All of this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

Park Chung-hee served as president of South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; the male characters are by contrast flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as Go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. One or two are slightly more memorable: Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father, for example, and Namin’s brother who, suffering from cerebral palsy, has to be sent to the countryside to be raised by his grandparents (a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive to advance herself at school).

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Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention and drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The narrative, though, might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

Asian Review of Books