The Ginseng Hunter
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
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". . . a beautiful written novel with unforgettable characters . . ."
The Ginseng Hunter: Communism and tyranny from both sides of the river.
The turn of the seasons governs a ginseng hunter’s life. From spring to late autumn he must gather enough carefully unearthed roots to buy what he cannot grow in order to survive the winter. Each spring he must begin again.
This year, on the eve of the twenty-first century, the hunter’s life changes. On his monthly visit to the brothel in town, he meets a North Korean woman whose haunted chestnut brown eyes slide away from his with fear and distrust. The tips of her fingers are black beneath the bright red lacquer on her nails. He is at once curious and mesmerized. Instead of seeing a new woman every month, the hunter returns only to her and she becomes his lover. She tells him the story of her life so he will understand the world on the other side of the river that separates China and North Korean.
Back on his farm, he finds it more difficult to slide into the silence. He thinks only of his lover as he looks for whoever is raiding his garden and stealing from him and his neighbors. He knows it is North Koreans slipping across the river. If he catches them, he can hand them over for money. They will be taken back and maybe killed, but it is not problem.
Jeff Talarigo gives few of the characters in The Ginseng Hunter names. Even the women of the brothel go by the owner’s name, Miss Wong. What drives Talarigo’s novel is not names but emotions, poetry and character, giving this often horrific tale a sedate and superbly poetic flow that changes each momentas the shared journey is revealed.
The North Korean woman’s tale of life under the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader, is heartbreaking and horrendous. By contrast Chairman Mao’s wholesale destruction of the swallows is benign, even though it makes life for the main character and his family more difficult, but there is a deeper meaning here.
Instead of resulting to graphic details to shock the reader, Talarigo unfolds the story within the story slowly and careful, revealing the painful suppurating wound beneath the gauze. He deals no less carefully with the men who raid the hunter’s farm, the child with black feet and chestnut eyes that remind the hunter of his lover’s and the North Korean soldier who saves his life after coming to take the little girl back across the river.
The Ginseng Hunter is a beautiful written novel with unforgettable characters and simple human emotions. Each character is carefully drawn and portrayed with feeling, with all their faults, flaws and humanity intact.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell