Review: Tiger Pelt by Annabelle Kim
Leaf Land Press, 2017
We are lucky here at Kelsey Review to have published local writer Annabelle Kim’s short fiction in the past, and luckier still to be able to review her debut novel, Tiger Pelt, published earlier this year. Deeply felt and thoroughly researched, this work of historical fiction follows two main characters, Kim Young Nam and Lee Hana, as they struggle to survive in Korea during and after WWII and the Korean War. These two characters lead separate lives—Kim helping to take care of his family, trying to further his education, and working for the US Army; Lee forcibly taken to work as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese soldiers—but their paths do cross one fateful day during a powerful monsoon, when Kim saves Lee from drowning in the Sap Kyo River. This event is grippingly narrated in the opening chapter, although it isn’t until near the end of the book that we see these two characters’ lives intertwine again.
In the meantime, the chapters alternate between Kim and Lee, recounting the events of their lives with brutal, sometimes horrifying detail. The author’s power in this book comes from narrating these events unflinchingly. She boldly presents to the reader the horrors of war for both women and men during these times, as well as the tragic aftermath when war ends. Lee, considered “ruined goods,” is shunned by her family and is married off to a man who beats her (although she later finds a short-lived love with a kinder man). Kim fares somewhat better, attending Seoul Bible College, where he falls in love with a young woman whom he eventually marries. However, he is haunted by the horrors of war and poverty, and he is tormented with guilt over his little brother’s death. This highlights one of the themes of the book: the desire to save others and the remorse that accompanies the realization that one cannot save everybody.
When Kim’s little brother dies, the family posthumously goes to a genealogist in town to give him a proper name and enroll him in the official register. While there, the genealogist quotes an ancient proverb: “When a tiger dies, he leaves a pelt; when a man dies, he leaves his name.” The title of the book, then, is also an ode to names, to family, to what is left after one dies, to legacy. And yet, the book suggests, a man leaves more than just his name; he leaves the lives of others changed. If he has lived a good life, as Kim Young Nam does, a life of hard work, valuing family and education, making the right choices, sacrificing one’s self for others—then he will leave the world a better place.
Another Korean saying holds tremendous weight in the book: “When whales fight, shrimp’s backs are broken.” This aphorism runs through Kim’s mind as he witnesses a bridge burning over the Han River. This saying seems to suggest that Kim, his family, and his community are the “shrimp” who end up devastated because the people in power—the “whales”—wage war. What’s remarkable about this novel is that the author makes the seemingly small lives of Kim and Lee seem large and important. These were not unnamed casualties of war; these were individuals with desires and dreams who overcame insurmountable obstacles to survive.
One could describe this novel as a bildungsroman, but perhaps more accurately it is a Campbellian hero’s journey. Kim leaves home, pursues education, saves Lee, struggles, marries, and then travels to America. It is in America that he realizes his dreams and then connects again with Lee, who has also made her way to America (thanks to the “kinder man” mentioned earlier). It is in America that Lee, too, realizes her dreams, and is finally able to show some agency in her own life. And then, like any good hero’s journey, there is a “return,” when Kim is pushed back to his homeland. This circular pattern of storytelling is nothing new, but it works very well for this material; it highlights the heroism and mythic elements inherent in Kim’s story.
A tale of war, of love, of family, of salvation, of culture and identity and coming to America, Annabelle Kim has woven a tale that transcends time and culture even while being very firmly grounded in it. Many times in the reading of this book, I found myself moved to tears. This novel does exactly what a novel should do—it absorbs the reader in its characters’ lives, and enriches the reader’s own life while doing so.
About the author:
Jacqueline Vogtman is Editor of the Kelsey Review and an Assistant Professor of English at Mercer County Community College. She received her MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from Bowling Green State University in Ohio (where she served as an assistant editor of Mid-American Review) and her BA in English/Creative Writing from The College of New Jersey. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Connotation Press, Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, Emerson Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Versal, and other journals both in print and online.