On July 2, 2015, Hyeonseo Lee’s book, The Girl with Seven Names, hit bookshelves and quickly captivated readers. The memoir focuses on Lee’s journey from North Korea’s Ryanggang Province to coping with life as a defector in China and beyond. As her story unfolds, readers get a chance to experience her escape, why she made her choices, as well as how she became the person she is today.
Lee’s book is well written and wrought with simplicity which makes it easy for readers to get absorbed in her tale. From the get-go, it’s made clear that Lee and her mother and brother were privileged in North Korea, but these privileges did not serve as a shield from the terrors of the Kim regime. As Lee tells her tale about her decision to leave her country and the method she chose to do so, a reader’s heart could break as she struggled with the decision to leave her family behind and her ultimate decision to help them escape also.
There are many poignant scenes in The Girl with Seven Names, but the one that sticks is when she made her initial escape by lying to her mother about visiting a friend. Lee was definitely brazen, and this is one of the dominant themes of the story.
Lee’s writing is definitely more candid than emotional, which is one of the many pluses of The Girl with Seven Names. This page-turner didn’t paint a rosy image of life outside of North Korea; instead, it also embraced some of the challenges defectors face to help paint an image that’s well-rounded and multi-faceted. The contrasts between her life in the North as well as her realizations that life isn’t as great as the regime made it seem can click with readers well.
Besides her play-by-play of her actions and decisions, The Girl with Seven Names is, at its heart, a coming-of-age tale. Readers get an opportunity to see how, when someone is thrown—by choice—into difficult circumstances, one’s intelligence and drive can kick in to help a person survive. Through identity changes and life changes, readers see the true potential of the human spirit and what people are capable of if they are willing to fight.
One issue with the story is that it does rely too much on play-by-play. It would have been nice to experience more of Lee’s inner thoughts. There are glimpses of these thoughts and commentary throughout the book, but having more would have really given readers a more in-depth look into Lee’s soul.
The Girl with Seven Names is definitely a must-read story because it delves deeper than the usual “I escaped the regime, now everything is grand!” stories some defectors tell. Lee’s authentic voice is a bright spoke among defector stories that shift often with details and are sometimes sensationalized for what seems like attention-seeking purposes. The simplicity of Lee’s words lends a quiet quality to the book, but the images she shares are loud and clear.
The Girl with Seven Names earns a 4/5.