Mirinae Lee covers a century of Korean history in her debut novel 8 Lives of a Century Old Trickster. The book is a series of short stories that weave in and out of time and around perspectives. It tells the story of a woman who experienced the depths of abuse and later used this experience to become a spy. Along the way, she will live through and survive some of the most harrowing episodes of Korean history.
8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is framed by the narrative of a worker in a South Korean old age home. The narrator’s job is to pre-write obituaries for the residents by asking them about their lives. One of her techniques is to ask them to use three words to describe themselves. The irrepressible Mrs Mook wants to use eight words:
Slave. Escape-artist. Murderer. Terrorist. Spy. Lover. And Mother.
The stories that follow this declaration explain all of these.
The stories in the novel are not chronological to start with. They begin in 1961 (the Fifth Life), before dropping back to 1938 (the First Life) and then weave their way through the final years of the Japanese Occupation, the Korean War and its aftermath. These are tough stories. The protagonist, whose name changes depending on where she is in time, was abused as a child, became a comfort woman to the Japanese and then witnessed similar acts from the Americans before reinventing herself in North Korea in the years following the end of the Korean War. They depict a woman who, despite being held down by circumstance, has some agency and often manages to strike back. The final three stories are chronological, bringing the story into the early 21st century and focussing not only on Mrs Mook but her daughter who also becomes a North Korean spy.
8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is an assured and affecting debut. 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster gives an insight into the history and the trauma that continues to sit beneath the surface of a country that is increasingly becoming a global powerhouse. And particularly giving a female perspective, the narrative takes readers into some uncomfortable truths not only of the Japanese occupation but also of the American influence on the country and the impacts of the conflict with North Korea that followed.