I’m taking a break from some very boring home decorating and DIY jobs to write up my review of this beautiful book. I was over the moon to receive a copy to review as I’d seen that it was a Reese’s Book Club pick and the cover is so gorgeous that I just can’t stop admiring those sunset colours!
The blurb …
Margot Lee’s mother is ignoring her calls. Margot cannot understand why, until she makes a surprise trip home to Koreatown, LA. What she finds there makes her realise how little she knows about her mother, Mina.
Thirty years earlier, Mina Lee steps off a plane to take a chance on a new life in America. Stacking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing she expects is to fall in love. But that moment will have shattering consequences for Mina, and everything she left behind in Seoul.
Through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, Margot and Mina’s story unravels the unspoken secrets that can drive two people apart – or perhaps bind them closer together.
My review …
(Contains a spoiler)
This incredible story is told from the points of view of Mina and her daughter Margot from two different timelines, however this very much remains Mina’s story. We are introduced to Mina Lee back in 1987 as she hesitantly steps off a plane into LA airport to start a new life in Koreatown after suffering so much tragedy in Seoul that she describes it as being like a graveyard to her. She has rented a room in an apartment block and she soon finds work at a Korean supermarket.
We meet her daughter American born Margot in Fall 2014 as she is helping her friend Miguel relocate from Seattle to LA. She is also using this as a chance to check in on her mom, whom she hasn’t been able to contact for two weeks, and because the last time she actually saw her was the previous Christmas. Sadly as Margot arrives at her mom’s flat she discovers that she has died, lying undiscovered for a few days, in what looks like an accidental fall. But as Margot is sorting through her mother’s belongings, she starts to become suspicious about the circumstances surrounding her death. There is a real air of suspense about the story as Margot goes in search of the truth and she comes to realise that there is a lot she didn’t know or understand about her mother.
Mina raised Margot alone, but despite this there is a terrible disconnect between them. There was a huge language and cultural barrier between the two and Margot spent her older childhood being ashamed of her mother’s language, their home and their poverty. It was fascinating to read about the complexities of this mother/daughter relationship and warming to see Margot slowly starting to feel more emotion and empathy for her mother, as she learned more about her life and their family history.
I thought that this was such a beautifully written and sad story. Mina’s life and the pain and suffering she had to endure, from the devastating effects of the Korean war to the harsh realities of life in America as a Korean immigrant, was truly heartbreaking. As Mina says, she worked so hard for so little with the constant fear of deportation hanging over her. She lived a very lonely life and simply worked to survive.
Food was a big part of this story and I was tempted by all the mouthwatering descriptions of traditional Korean cuisine. such as banchan, kimchi jjigae and doenjang. The food was like a comfort blanket for Mina when she arrived in America and it was used to show love and affection in many different ways throughout the book as well as adding to the whole cultural vibe of the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Story of Mina Lee, I think this is a stunning debut novel. I adored the author’s voice and writing style whilst the descriptive and emotive language, and analogies were absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend this book and I will definitely be looking out for more of Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s work.
About the author …
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the University of Washington, Seattle. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writer’s Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing and elsewhere. The Last Story of Mina Lee is her first novel.
Instagram and Twitter: @njooyounkim
Published by Headline Review on 1st September 2020
Thank you so much to Emily Patience at Headline Publishing for my gifted copy of the book.
Thanks for reading!