4th Estate Books 2nd May 2019 (Hardback)
It is the winter of 1954 and in the rubble-strewn aftermath of the Korean war Marilyn Monroe has come to Seoul to perform to the US soldiers stationed there. Incongruous in her silk dress and flawless makeup, she sings of seduction and love, dazzling battle-scarred Americans and Koreans alike.
Alice, the woman chosen to be Marilyn’s translator, was once Kim Ae-sun, before her name was stolen from her – along with so much else – by the war. With her prematurely grey hair, her fraying lace gloves and the memories that will engulf her if she lets them, Alice works as a typist for the US military. It is a job that has enabled her to survive, and to forget.
As they travel across the country, over the four days of Marilyn’s tour, the two women begin to form an unlikely friendship. But when Alice becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy, she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to escape.
Firstly huge thanks to 4th Estate Books, I attended an event with them recently where I picked up my proof copy of this book. The title appealed to me greatly, the premise of a close up with Marilyn Monroe whilst on her tour to the US soldiers stationed in post war Korea. Sadly this wasn’t that book and I must confess that I was disappointed with the relatively small role played by Marilyn in this book. I wonder if the misleading title will leave others similarly disappointed, which would be a shame because at less than 170 pages this book offers an insight into the post war struggles of traumatized Alice as she seeks to rebuild her life.
The visit of Marilyn Monroe provides the back drop for this story and the author states in her notes that the book was inspired by 2 photos – one of a female interpreter at work, standing between a UN soldier and a North Korean POW during the Korean War, the other of Marilyn Monroe who visited Korea right after the war to perform to the American military.
Our protagonist Alice has survived the war and this is her story, damaged from her experiences and existing rather than living, the opportunity to accompany Marilyn Monroe on her 4 day tour offers chances to heal and unexpectedly reveals the answers to many of her wartime questions. The book is well written linking the then and now as Alice prepares for the visit, chapters from the past detail her experiences of war and people she has loved and lost whose stories emerge as the visit progresses.
The format of the book works well and is easy to follow although I did struggle to place some of the characters with unfamiliar Korean names. I warmed to the character of Alice as the book progressed, as I did to her story and it’s other 2 key characters. The harsh and traumatic impact of the war was well conveyed and the book highlighted for me how little I knew about this event in history. The author notes that the Korean War is also known as the Forgotten War and I wonder if this in part explains my poor knowledge.
An interesting snap shot of the trauma this war caused and a potentially informative read, although I think I needed a firmer knowledge base to really appreciate this book. Not really about Marilyn Monroe but I enjoyed the most the parts where she featured.
Published earlier this month and while perhaps not for me, for those particularly interested in this historical period I imagine this book would appeal more.
Ji-min Lee is a celebrated screenwriter in Korea and author of several novels.
Chi-Young Kim is the international Booker Prize – winning translator of Please Look After Mom (Knopf), The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Penguin), The Good Son (Penguin) and many others.