3 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
The Vanished, Pejay Bradley’s riveting historical novel, brings readers back to a bygone time when Koreans were “a people without a nation.” The story spans a period of nearly two decades, following the life of Kim Embon (“Em” means forest and “Bon,” prosperity), the sheltered son of a Korean elite. Though born at a period of political turmoil, a volatile time when Korea is struggling to break free from Japanese rule, Embon enjoys a life of privilege under the watchful eyes of his mother, Lady Sougyon, the daughter of a prince. When Embon decides to study in Japan, he meets a group of young revolutionaries-in-the-making who opens his eyes to the social disparities in their country and inspires in him a longing for freedom, whatever the cost may be.
The story unfolds through the eyes of several characters, all of whom are tied to Embon in some way. Through them, we are plunged into the sociohistorical landscape of Korea at the turn of the 20th century. There’s a staggering wealth of Korean culture and history within the pages, covering everything from the evolving roles of women in this era, the intricacies of arranged marriage, the decline of the elite, the brazen acts of violence committed by Japanese authorities against the Korean people, and of course, the struggle for independence and the price that had been paid on both fronts. Japan is heavily vilified in the narrative, an inevitable consequence given the nature of the story being told. At its core, The Vanished is the tale of a beleaguered nation and its people, and Bradley hands over the reins to the characters, who recount their stories from their personal — and hence, very subjective — points of view.
Anyone interested in Asian history will love Bradley’s offering. The writing evokes the rich setting, the tragedy of the events that transpired, and the depth of the characters’ experiences and feelings. There are several quotable portions, such as this incisive remark from Lady Sougyon: “There are two things in life that people want to hide but never succeed — ignorance and poverty.” These instructions given to Embon and his friends right before a crucial mission sent shivers down my spine: “Don’t get captured alive. If you think you might be, then shoot, shoot as many of them as you can. But save one last bullet for yourself.”
All of these give the book a very strong sense of character, time, and place. The motif of the quest for freedom is carried throughout, underscoring the sad truth that fetters come in many forms and sizes — an oppressive regime, a loveless marriage, an archaic cultural norm, poverty, riches, or even the status of royalty — leaving readers to wonder, “Is anyone ever really free?”
As engrossing as the historical elements were, the novel as a whole is not for those who lack patience or those who like definitive endings. The story takes its time rooting readers in history that the plot points found in the book description (e.g., Embon joining the revolutionary cause) actually take place toward the story’s third act. And after all that build-up, everything seems to happen and end in a snap. If this was Bradley’s intention, then readers are meant to leave the book at an all-time emotional high. For my part, however, I was surprised and bewildered at the abruptness of the conclusion.
Bradley’s prose sways the emotions and stimulates the mind, and her work is professionally edited. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers a little with the shifting POVs, as Bradley writes Lady Sougyon’s parts in first-person and the rest of the cast’s perspectives in third-person. There are dialogues that serve nothing but provide more background on a historical figure or event, something that would have been better off as straightforward exposition. One key character, the woman that Embon might love, entered the narrative without prior introduction and played a very minimal role in the story that her inclusion seemed more like an afterthought. She could have served as a catalyst to spur Embon’s character development, which came across as too sudden, a bit rushed, and consequently hard to believe.
That said, The Vanished is a worthwhile read, just shy of the perfect score because of the narrative issues mentioned. Fans of historical fiction surely won’t mind the many detours the story takes, but casual readers might be put off by the pace and the final destination. All things considered, The Vanished gets a final rating of 3 out of 4 stars.
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon