The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn

In the tradition of Yangsze Choo’s Night Tiger and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko comes a magical saga that explores what it really means to love.

This should be a 5 star read for me: historical fiction, set in Korea, set in war-time. It just didn’t put all the pieces together very well for me.

They compare the book to Pachinko which is not at all correct in my opinion. Pachinko is a layered, multi generational saga, with a rich description of the time period it is in, while The Mermaid from Jeju feels a bit flat. Hahn does not really set the scene very well of the time-period. She covers over this by including a timeline of events at the beginning of the story which is helpful, because if you don’t keep that in mind, you might forget you are in post-WW2 Korea.

The characters were interesting in this novel. I liked Junja, the main character. She was well described and written. The male characters were OK. I didn’t like how it kept jumping back and forth between the past and the present. It felt like a cheap trick. I didn’t feel it was necessary or added much to the plot.

The whole book felt like it got bogged down once it got to the end where it picks up the story of two Nationalist soldiers who help Junja flee Jeju island. This is where the book started jumping back and forth between past and future and got confusing quick.

When I read historical fiction, I don’t only read for the character development, but to learn about the time-period. It felt pretty bare bones in this one. The author is writing a book about Korea, but hasn’t lived there extensively. It feels like she mostly relied on the oral history of her family members and others. It doesn’t feel well researched, and that shows in the scanty time she pays to building up the setting.

It’s a quick read, so I won’t be too harsh on my rating. Just remember, this is not Pachinko, and shame on the editor who thought that was an apt comparison. Shame.

Rating: ★★★ Book #95 in my 2021 Reading Challenge

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