The Defections, by Hannah Michell, has a terrifically compelling backdrop, the division of Korea into North and South. It’s a setting that instantly echoes those fantastic Cold War novels of the past — and indeed The Defections has echoes of both Graham Greene and John Le Carre in its depiction of a doomed relationship between diplomatic translator Mia Kim and a British attaché.
The blurb wants to be somewhere else:
Seoul, South Korea. Mia is an outsider. The child of an English mother, she defies the rigid expectations of her Korean stepmother to work as a translator at the British Embassy. Her uncle runs a charitable – and controversial – school for North Korean defectors, and prevails upon Mia’s stepmother to shelter a traumatised young student. Mia is too preoccupied to note the defector’s strange behaviour – or its implications.
She has become infatuated with Thomas, a diplomat with a self-destructive streak. When an outrageous indiscretion endangers his position, it is Mia who saves him from humiliation and rescues his career. And the boundaries between them are crossed.
As a reward for his reformation, Thomas is commissioned to audit security amongst Embassy staff. Learning of Mia’s connections to the defector, he is compelled to dig deeper into the life of the woman who has captivated him. Suddenly, all that Mia has done to get close to Thomas begins to cause her undoing.
First and foremost, The Defections is a character study. Its thriller aspect isn’t, let’s be frank, hugely satisfying, and when it does belatedly kick in –- ultimately, Mia and Thomas’s relationship, and the discovery of a tunnel connecting the two countries, spark international tensions — you don’t get the sense that Michell is hugely interested in it. It’s the characters who power the novel and the relationships.
Michell’s protag, Mia Kim, is an outsider in a nation of misplaced people. Because of the split, whole families have been lost to each other for decades. Mia’s mother — who she barely remembers –- is English and so she’s persecuted by her bitter stepmother Kyung-ha, and still carries the scars of attacks from vicious classmates. It’s Mia’s dreams of becoming English that fuels her relationship with diplomat Thomas. Other narratives involving Kyung-ha and a young defector called Hyun-min weave in and out of the central story.
There’s an interesting lack of context to the drama. The traumatic division between North and South Korea, and subsequent fraught tension between the two nations, is a menacing pulse beneath the prose, and yet we’re never really given details about the fractious and disastrous relationship between these two countries.
Michell — who grew up in Seoul — doesn’t provide any history outside of the experience of her characters, and so the city remains an alien place, the kind of strange society, rain-lashed and neon-soaked, that China Melville would create. Everyone seems dislocated, out of whack with their surroundings. Everyone wants to belong, to go home; everyone has someone missing from their lives. Thomas and his long-suffering wife Felicity move from city to city, becoming steadily more unhappy. Korea, seared down the middle, is as disfigured as the network of scars across Mia’s body.
The prose is careful and delicate and soaked in layers of theme and meaning. Michell lets her characters be themselves, warts and all, and we get to like most of them, even the hot-tempered and abusive Kyung-ha. The exception is perhaps Thomas, a monumentally selfish and self-absorbed diplomat and the latest in a long line of sozzled literary consuls.
There’s little here to interest a diehard thriller reader, perhaps, but The Defections is a haunting and bold debut about a people, and a city, straining to cope with the sins of the past.
Many thanks for Quercus for the review copy.
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