New Release Book Review: The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

The Kinship of Secrets…

About the Book:

The riveting story of two sisters, one raised in the United States, the other in South Korea, and the family that bound them together even as the Korean War kept them apart.

In 1948 Najin and Calvin Cho, with their young daughter Miran, travel from South Korea to the United States in search of new opportunities. Wary of the challenges ahead, Najin and Calvin make the difficult decision to leave their other daughter, Inja, behind with their extended family; soon, they hope, they will return to her.

But then war breaks out in Korea, and there is no end in sight to the separation. Miran grows up in prosperous American suburbia, under the shadow of the daughter left behind, as Inja grapples in her war-torn land with ties to a family she doesn’t remember. Najin and Calvin desperately seek a reunion with Inja, but are the bonds of love strong enough to reconnect their family over distance, time and war? And as deep family secrets are revealed, will everything they long for be upended?

Told through the alternating perspectives of the distanced sisters, and inspired by a true story, The Kinship of Secrets explores the cruelty of war, the power of hope, and what it means to be a sister.

My Thoughts:

‘This novel is a fiction derived from the facts of my family’s life, and especially my sister’s life, during and after the Korean War, the fifth deadliest war in human history, also known as “the forgotten war”.’ – Author notes.

This novel has impressed me so much more than I could have ever anticipated. It’s a delicate balance of clear expression and deeply moving prose, a story that is quite honestly, unforgettable. And the fact that it is based for the most part on the author’s own family, makes it even more impacting. Some might wonder why, with so much truth embedded into the narrative, the author didn’t write this story as a memoir. Personally, I feel that fiction offers more creative power to most stories, provided you can strike the right balance between truth and narrative, which Eugenia Kim does with a deft hand.

‘Forgive me, Lord, if in the darkest places hidden deep in my heart – hidden even from my own sincerity – there should reside the thought that I have brought the wrong daughter to America.’

The Kinship of Secrets tells the story of two sisters growing up apart. One with her parents in America, the other in South Korea with her extended family made up of her uncle, aunt, and grandparents. The story begins at the outbreak of the Korean War, when the girls are aged three and four years old, and spans through until they are in their mid-twenties. It seems at first unbelievable that a couple would migrate to another country and only take one daughter. As a mother myself, I found this intensely unsettling. Yet, I was unable to reproach Najin, because her loss and sacrifice was so profound. Times were so different, it was no simple matter of hopping on an aeroplane and travelling in comfort like we do today. As reprehensible as it seemed to leave one child behind, I could understand it intimately, and as more information surrounding the decision and what influenced the choosing of one child over the other came to light, the more I understood, and the more my heart cracked open for Najin.

‘Her mind swirled with questions and something dark she didn’t like feeling. Always it was the war. This war, the war before, the one before that. It seemed everyone used it as an excuse for all ills. And perhaps it was.’

I’ve never read a novel about the Korean War before, so I really appreciated gaining such insight into the politics and the conflict, both during the war and in the unsettled years that followed. I draw back to Eugenia Kim’s effortless writing style, so clear and precise, yet never overloading with facts or politics. I felt like I was fully informed, yet never weighted down. By facts, at least. My emotions were another story! There were so many moments, of horror, of simple joy, of human connection, that impacted me greatly.

‘Would she even like her? Something about that thought felt wrong, as if having a sister meant they’d automatically like – and even love – each other. But what if they didn’t?’

The separation of these sisters is the driving force behind this story as we are eternally moving towards a time when they might meet, when Inja might finally be reunited with the family she has no memory of. The difficulties attached to this were explored fully, most notably the emotional side of it. Inja’s uncle was such a incredibly wonderful man, he was truly inspirational in the way he loved Inja and brought her up on his sister’s behalf with such care. But this of course made it all the more harder for Inja to contemplate ever leaving Korea. She loved Korea: her friends, her school, her family. Everything in America was unknown, most particularly, her sister Miran who spoke no Korean, just as Inja spoke no English. These sisters were not only separated by distance, but by culture. It was quite heartbreaking.

‘She was aware of a strange kind of power one gained from holding secrets, and how confidences begat a kind of self-confidence – how the power of secrets required an inner strength and the maturity of discernment to keep them hidden.’

Inja was a favourite of mine but I did really feel for Miran, a Korean girl who was not Korean, if that makes any sense. She was American, but growing up in the era of the Cold War, shadowed by a mythical sister who had been left behind in Korea, who her mother clearly pined for. Inja was a big part of her life, for fifteen years parcels were sent, she shared so many of her things with Inja, without having ever met her. Their language barrier meant they were unable to even exchange letters. The adjustment period for the sisters when they at last lived together was fraught at times, but lined with sincerity. I loved how they made their way with each other, connected by a fragile thread in the web that made up their family history. This is a novel about strong women, about hardship and sacrifice, about love and honour. It’s about finding yourself when you are lost within circumstances not of your own making. The title is particularly profound, especially with regards to Inga, who became quite the secret keeper within the family. So many themes of culture and family are explored alongside the consequences of war. The Kinship of Secrets is a remarkable novel, magnificent in its execution and profoundly beautiful in its narration. This is one I highly recommend.

‘Her mother and grandmother had risen like dragons from the sea floor of a centuries-old, neo-Confucian culture of female oppression. She had been given a tremendous gift of two unique women whose lives – whose Korean lives – had already exemplified for her what she could learn from the burgeoning American feminist crusade.’


Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury Publishing via Netgalley for providing me with a copy of The Kinship of Secrets for review.

About the Author:

Eugenia Kim is the daughter of Korean parents who immigrated to America shortly after the Pacific War. She has published short stories and essays in journals and anthologies, including Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings, and is an MFA graduate of Bennington College. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son. The Calligrapher’s Daughter was her first novel.

The Kinship of Secrets
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Released on 1st November 2018

5 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

  1. Oh, I’m adding this one right now to my TBR list.
    Have you ever read The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan, Theresa? Now that’s one incredible, profound and heartbreaking story. A friend of mine adopted two Asian (sorry, not sure what part of Asia) children (30 yrs ago) and she thanked me profusely for sharing this book with her. It helped her a great deal to understand her children.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 2018 Reading Highlights | Theresa Smith Writes

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