I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.
Remember when I started a Banned Book Club and unironically shut it down DURING Banned Books Week? My love for banned books still hasn’t gone, but I was just finding it difficult to manage work, the blog, AND a club to boot.
Anyway, I had this book on my radar and after my friend loudly raved about it in a huge voice note, I just had to pick it up!
When Kim Hyun Sook started college in 1983 she was ready for her world to open up. After acing her exams and sort-of convincing her traditional mother that it was a good idea for a woman to go to college, she looked forward to soaking up the ideas of Western Literature far from the drudgery she was promised at her family’s restaurant. But literature class would prove to be just the start of a massive turning point, still focused on reading but with life-or-death stakes she never could have imagined.
This was during South Korea’s Fifth Republic, a military regime that entrenched its power through censorship, torture, and the murder of protestors. In this charged political climate, with Molotov cocktails flying and fellow students disappearing for hours and returning with bruises, Hyun Sook sought refuge in the comfort of books. When the handsome young editor of the school newspaper invited her to his reading group, she expected to pop into the cafeteria to talk about Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter. Instead she found herself hiding in a basement as the youngest member of an underground banned book club. And as Hyun Sook soon discovered, in a totalitarian regime, the delights of discovering great works of illicit literature are quickly overshadowed by fear and violence as the walls close in.
In BANNED BOOK CLUB, Hyun Sook shares a dramatic true story of political division, fear-mongering, anti-intellectualism, the death of democratic institutions, and the relentless rebellion of reading.
Banned Book Club is set in 1983 South Korea where an authoritarian regime wields power and tensions run high throughout the country. Kim Hyun Sook starts at a university, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about learning. She wants to steer clear of the student protesters and just study. Things change once she joins a book club and finds out it’s for banned books. How this young college student learns about anti-intellectualism and risks imprisonment just for the simple, yet revolutionary act of reading forms the rest of the story.
I had goosebumps reading through this entire book because of how relevant this topic is even today, not just in South Korea but also the rest of the world.
In fact, this book gave me major flashbacks to early this year, when there was a wave of student protests against the passing of an unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act in India. Students were at the forefront of these protests, more so after brutal police attacks on the students of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia in December. It’s insane how deep fascism runs here, but many people don’t see it because of deep-seated prejudices and political division. And this book gets it!
“How can Chun trick everyone? How do people not see what’s happening?”
“He doesn’t care if we believe him or not. He created such a divide between the people who believe his lies and those who don’t that the country is too torn apart to come together and properly oppose him.”
Kim Hyun Sook and her motley group of friends also took part in student protests against an authoritarian regime. Instead of a citizenship act, the South Korea government banned certain pieces of literature. Hyun Sook wants to stay neutral and apolitical, but hanging out with these friends and reading a generous dose of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Locke leads to her actually joining the protests later.
“But if they’re going to keep calling us communists, we might as well learn what that means.”
Banned Book Club is a moving graphic memoir that talks about political division and fighting for democracy. It’s all the more relevant considering the state of the world today. And my favourite takeaway from this novel is that progress is never achieved in a single day and that there’s always something to work on.
“Progress is not a straight line. Never take it for granted.”
My only complaint is that the art is clunky in some places, but the story is SO good, none of it matters. I know I’m going to be recommending this book to a lot of people now!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5