◐ Book Name: Saha
◐ Author: Cho Nam-Joo (translated by Jamie Chang)
◐ Genre: Dystopian
◐ Pages: 224
In a country called Town, strictly controlled by a Council of Ministers, only Citizens have the privilege of living comfortably with job security. At the other end of the spectrum, residents of the Saha Estates have no status. They live in squalor without running water or electricity, and are given only the most grueling jobs, with no chance to rise above their station. Saha weaves together the stories of different characters within the Estates as they attempt to make sense of their lives.
Recommended for those who like social commentary in their readings and character-focused stories.
death, violence, discrimination, human experimentation
◐ Review: 3/5 ⭐
I received a copy of this book from the publication team in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.
For a small book, Saha is surprisingly rich, both in terms of characters, world-building, and themes. The main plot is a threadbare excuse to tell somewhat self-contained stories of the people living in Saha, but the book kept me engaged throughout. I wanted to know more about Town, about the corporation that runs it, and about the people who live at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Each character had a beautifully complex back story. Cho Nam-Joo knows her characters well, and it shows. I especially liked Jin-kyung, and the custodian referred to only as “the old man;” however, I can’t think of anyone I didn’t enjoy reading about. The old man was the most compelling character. No one knows why he chose to live at Saha. He could have a better life, but he stays and cares for these residents, albeit with his characteristic grump.
Considering how much is going on in the book, I would have liked for it to be longer, and more time spent on the main plot. The book opens with Jin-kyung’s brother, Do-kyung and his girlfriend Su, who has just died. Do-kyung goes on the run, and this thread is woven through the other characters’ stories until the climax and ending. However, it seemed little attention was given to this plotline, as most of the book was devoted instead to individual stories of other characters.
I was not expecting this when I started reading the book, and felt confused by the appearance of characters who are later rarely or never mentioned again. The stories are not told in chronological order, which includes a couple flashbacks to thirty years before the main events. This was also confusing since I often could not tell which timeline I was in. Characters mentioned as deceased in previous stories would appear again in subsequent chapters.
The ending left much to be desired, as I found it abrupt and strange. I kept trying to go to the next page, disbelieving that that was actually the end. It seemed like it ought to continue, and made me feel more than a little cheated.
The book packs a lot of social commentaries, including issues like gentrification, displacement of natives, dictatorship disguised as a corporation, abortion, oppression, and even a nod to the disparate effects of Covid-19 on different social classes. At moments, it did feel a bit preachy.
It may be more accurate to consider this an anthology very loosely tied together by Jin-kyung’s story as she tries to find what has happened to her brother, and her attempts to unmask the mysterious Council. In reality, it is a collection of stories of an oppressed group of people, unveiling their humanity in a way most people wouldn’t normally consider when we think of individuals in similar circumstances in our own society.
In that sense, the book delivers powerfully.
Don’t slip away. You’ve come this far. It’ll be a shame to let go now.
“I want a proper life. Not to be merely alive like a worm, or a moth, or cactus, but to really live.”
“Why are we sorry? We haven’t done anything wrong to each other, so why are we sorry? Who’s the one who really needs to apologize to me? No one apologizes to me. I don’t know who owes me an apology anymore. So I… I keep tearing up out of anger.”
“How did we end up so afraid of people with secrets?”
And that’s why people are afraid of you, Jin-kyung thought.
When someone has spent her entire life thinking, Life is what it is, it takes time for her to see that “what it is” does not have to be her life.
It’s the outright and the specific that move people. Belief, in itself, has no power.
She said it was painful to know so much and have to retain it all. But she believed remembering was something only humans could do. Never forget. Fear oblivion, she told herself as she suffered through it.
Anyway, I hope you have no regrets. There are so many who spend their entire lives without taking a single step of their own volition.
Never knew the beauty of the summer cherry trees after the flowers and the fruits have come and gone. Never knew the yearning of spring, the glittering summer, the warmth of autumn, the subdued winter. Never knew anything at all. Can’t say I lived at all. Can’t say this is living.