Sad Peninsula (Mark Sampson)

“Yet how would death come now, if Japan surrendered tomorrow? Or the day after that? Was time not running out for death to slip into her stall and carry her away?”

This is the worry of Meiko (her real, Korean name is Eun-young), a Korean “comfort woman” — one of the sex slaves of the occupying Japanese army. Maybe Japan will surrender, maybe she will be freed. Maybe this will happen before she dies.

She can’t imagine anything better than this — than death. The only thing worse than what is happening to her — constant, brutal rape, thirty to forty times per day — would be having to live afterward.

Sad Peninsula, as you might have gathered, is a difficult and distressing read, especially in its early chapters, during which Eun-young is imprisoned as a “comfort woman.” In later chapters, it doesn’t lighten up exactly, but is less harrowing, as Eun-young attempts to build something like a life out of the ashes of her abuse.

Still, she cannot escape her shame or her history’s shadow, and the tragedy of her past continues to haunt her present, and haunt Korea, even as this history is obscured. In one affecting scene, Eun-young burns a Japanese textbook that presents a sanitized version of that nation’s engagement with Korea.

In a parallel storyline, Michael, a disgraced Canadian journalist, navigates the sex-drenched nightlife in modern Korea, “slinging English like hamburgers” as a language teacher during the day. In addition to the obvious parallels — foreign obsession with Korean women, their treatment as sex objects — Sampson layers in subtle ones. Michael barks out “no Korean” when his students speak together in class, in a manner much different from, but still recalling, the suppression of the Korean language and Eun-young’s Korean name by the Japanese.

Michael begins to date a woman, Jin, with a familial connection that eventually sutures the two story lines. At the same time, Michael becomes interested in the Korean comfort women and begins to see their story as one that he could write, in a strange attempt to atone for his journalistic sins and personal failures.

Sad Peninsula is Mark Sampson’s second novel, after Off Book. The former Winnipegger (who holds an M.A. in English from the University of Manitoba, in addition to a degree in journalism from the University of King’s College) now lives in Toronto, but has clearly spent time in Korea and meticulously researched not only the actual historical events but also Korean life. Michael’s attempts to understand and observe Korean customs offers a (necessarily Western) perspective on Korean culture, suggesting the limitations of this viewpoint and its unhealthy fascination even as Sampson grounds his world through careful attention to detail.

The obvious danger of a non-Korean, male author stepping into the skin of a Korean comfort woman is also addressed in Sampson’s depiction of Michael, whose fascination with Eun-young’s story seems at once sincere and self-serving. At the same time, it might be better not to have so much access to Eun-young’s own thoughts. When she takes surprising actions, their shock is to some degree limited by knowing her motivations, when the trauma of her past and its effects is arguably not comprehensible, perhaps even by her.

Cleverly, Sampson anticipates and addresses such objections, turning the novel’s direction near its end. Sampson deftly negotiates the varying chapters and their viewpoints in Sad Peninsula, surprising us with character revelations without tipping into melodrama, and forcing us to look more closely when we might prefer to turn away.