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"A well-crafted tale of a person who forges ahead amid heartbreak and war."




Chang offers a debut historical novel about the extraordinary transformation of a Korean woman and her country.

In 1946, the inquisitive, forward-thinking 19-year-old Sonju holds onto the hope of “living a modern life” by continuing her education and marrying childhood friend Kungu, whom her parents find unsuitable. Although she dreams of being “equal partners” in a marriage in which both partners have “equal voice,” it quickly becomes clear that her future will be different, as her parents arrange a marriage to a stranger. Her new husband lives in Maari, a strictly traditional village; it takes time for Sonju to adjust to married life in a large extended family, but she grows fond of her sister-in-law and comes to have a tolerable relationship with her husband. Her life is irrevocably changed when she has a daughter, Jinju; just as South Korea moves toward independence from Japan, Sonju vows to raise Jinju as an independent girl, giving her “freedom to explore possibilities.” Sonju also begins to teach local women how to read and write. But as the Korean War breaks out, her dreams for her future are threatened. She and her daughter evacuate but aren’t spared from witnessing horrors of war: “limp bodies reduced to animal flesh, reeking animal stench.” After the war, her marriage unravels after a great loss, and she eventually returns to Seoul, where she rekindles her love for Kungu. Soon, though, she must begin anew once again. Throughout this novel, Chang uses Sonju’s life as a metaphor for the cultural upheaval of Korea in the mid-20th century. She successfully crafts a fully formed protagonist with singular strength and determination, and her prose is measured and thoughtful. She’s particularly adept at conveying emotion through everyday, domestic imagery that readers will appreciate, as when Sonju sadly contemplates the “valleys and mountains” made by the fabric of her wedding gown, mourning days of freedom with her childhood friends; at another point, during her melancholy introduction to her husband’s family home, she notices how the “freshly applied wallpaper with light pink flowers seemed overly hopeful.”

--Kirkus Reviews (Starred)

"Her story is, in a way, Korea’s story..." ~ Clay Reynolds, Author

This revealing, passionate account of a young woman’s coming of age, achievement of maturity, and discovery of emancipation is written from the heart. More than merely a story of love and betrayal, loss and sacrifice, it also offers an allegory for the emergence of South Korea as a significant player in the game of nations. Sonju’s “flowering,” in a sense, her journey of self-discovery is watered by the tears of pain and the gut-wrenching experience as she is dragged almost physically from a primitive world of repressive tradition and subjugation, a prescribed life deeply rooted in antiquity into a bewildering world of rapidly evolving modernity and change. Her story is, in a way, Korea’s story, and her pain, in so many ways, reflects Korea’s pain as a nation divided by artificial lines and fiercely debated social and political convictions, as it struggles to protect its identity, its values. This tale tears at the heart, reminding us of the mutability of fortune, the fragility of life, and teaches us that, ultimately, we must each define ourselves, determine our destinies, without counting the cost. Carefully written, rendered in prosaic watercolor, Sonju will sober every reader’s perception of the common humanity that motivates us all to be better, to do more, to achieve all we can through confidence and determination and belief in ourselves.

–Clay Reynolds, author of The Vigil, Agatite, Franklin’s Crossing, 
Ars Poetica, Monuments, and The Tentmaker

"Sonju rings with truth and realism." ~Kathryn Berck, Authur

One of feminism’s many challenges is to express it in fiction without yielding to the temptation to oversimplify or overdramatize its evolution within individual women, and within those women’s social and cultural milieus. When those milieus are unfamiliar to most readers, the difficulties can be compounded. Sonju does a masterful job of guiding the reader through all of this.

Sonju herself is a young Korean woman who comes of age in the 1940’s while her country is subjected to Japanese rule. She submits to a hasty, inferior marriage to protect her family’s status, then tries to be resigned and loyal while still trying to find her own way. Relationships within her new family, the Korean War, her husband’s infidelity, her decision to leave him and return to the lover of her youth all serve to slam doors shut behind her. She is even forbidden all contact with her daughter, a loss that torments her ever after. At the same time, what lies ahead is nothing she planned and nothing she knows how to manage. Without overt or artificial drama she leads the reader through the thoughtful renovation of her life, and, at the same time, the slow evolution of her country.

Without the usual spectacle of such a Cinderella-seeming story, Sonju rings with truth and realism. The reader never questions the harshness of the culture nor her commitment to it. The reader admires the small but steady steps she and Korea make together. This story is truly one of a kind, unforgettable, and deeply satisfying.
—Kathryn Berck, author of The Hostage, The Suppliant, 
The Hunter, and The Good Kinsmen

"I needed to read it to properly rebuke the argument of Korean patriarchy..."  ~Rose Bae, Yale University
Required Reading List, Yale University

This book is not an easy one for someone who reads for comfort. For a book to feel pleasant, I must be able to open the book, plop into the mind of the main character within a few pages, and go back to the real world without hassle once the book is shut. The Korea in which Sonju lives, however, is too similar to my Korea for the seamless mental entry and exit I have come to expect. Her husband takes Sonju by force on their wedding night and then whenever he pleases because that is his right. Today, many Koreans express unmarred sympathy for men whose wives and girlfriends don’t put out for them while treating women’s overt sexuality with disdain. Sonju’s husband’s affairs are swept under the rug because he is fullling his duties as breadwinner. Today, “room salon culture” is so deeply rooted as a necessary business lubricant that wives are supposed to feel sorry for their husbands who “have to” pay for a private room and female escorts to appease their business partners. While I cannot claim Sonju’s story as my own—after all, I am studying at an elite college in the United States, not forcibly married—I needed to read it to properly rebuke the argument of Korean patriarchy that goes, “The women from fifty years ago were the victims of sexism, not you.”

By no means is this to say that non-Korean readers can sit back and breeze through the book. Or, at least, I hope they don’t. Sonju is extremely versatile: it will give you what you want from the book. If you are looking for star-crossed lovers or a muted but powerful denouncement of war, you will find it within its pages. But I also hope you decide to appreciate the cultural background that Chang so carefully constructs. This requires that you pay attention to the italicized and unitalicized words, the aftereffects of Japanese colonization that have seeped into Korean culture, the particular brand of social conservatism that requires so much silent sacrifice. Korea is continually viewed by the United States as a sensation— K-POP! K-BBQ! K-OTHER-STUFF! These are misleading, albeit flattering, veils that you can begin to push aside by picking up a copy of Sonju.

Author: Rose Bae (
Filed Under: Culture (, Required Reading (


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