Review: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

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Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life. A River in Darkness is not only a shocking portrait of life inside the country but a testament to the dignity—and indomitable nature—of the human spirit.


I honestly think this book is the modern day Night. It’s just as harrowing a story and is something that needs to be talked about and pushed into the public eye more. I’m sat here worried about Brexit but at the end of the day, I’m going to have my family, food and a place to live – millions of people living in North Korea have none of these things. I know you can’t always compare your situation to situations such as this but it puts things into perspective and makes you realise just how easy you have it.

There are a few reviews of this that talk about how the book is all pain and misery, which is certainly true, but they talk about that in a negative way. I’m not sure what those people were expecting to read when they picked up this novel about an escapee of North Korea? Admittedly there isn’t a whole lot of resolution to the end of this book but I don’t think one man’s story of death and starvation could be anything other than pain and misery. I personally think this book was a courageous move on Ishikawa’s part and informs a new generation of the horrors of North Korea.

There’s not a lot I can say about this book other than it’s a truly haunting memoir that needs to be experienced firsthand. It’s a relatively short book but it drops us right into the middle of a modern-day nightmare that needs to be heard. This book has left a mark on me and it’s not something I’m ever going to forget reading. It’s brutal, dark, open, and honest, and it’s worth reading.

Reading books like this always makes me think about human right violations, not just in North Korea, but all over the world and I wish that I could do more to help those in need. I donate monthly to Amnesty International, if you have any spare money, any number of human rights charities are amazing causes to give to and aim to help people like Masaji Ishikawa.

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16 Replies to “Review: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa”

  1. Fantastic review! I got so much from this book, it was among the best I read last year. It’s not exactly hopeful or promising, but I got the impression that his situation wasn’t unusual…even once they manage to survive a successful escape, it’s not at all easy, they’re still worried about and separated from their loved ones, struggling in a foreign country among other scary things.
    It’s so strange that people would criticize it for being all pain and misery…unfortunately this happened and is happening, what use is it to ignore it? Reading this doesn’t mean you’re wallowing in it. Not every true story is heartwarming but it’s worth knowing.

    Thanks for writing about this so clearly and sensibly, loved getting your take on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much 🥰
      It’s definitely one of those stories that needs to be heard. Like you said, it’s one of those things that shouldn’t be ignored just because it’s upsetting. If we could get enough people to listen and care, maybe there would be more that we could do. Who knows!
      I’m so glad I’ve read this as I put it off for a while, but like I said, it’s so worth a read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your review! I picked up the ebook version of this a while back (Amazon was having an own-voices promo, I think?) but haven’t gotten the courage to read it yet. I know it’s going to be dark, but thank you for the reminder that it’s also an important read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely dark and uncomfortable to read, but it’s also a difficult reminder of the atrocious things happening to people in the world that may get forgotten. I hope you find it an interesting, if not tricky, read once you get around to it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard a lot of great things about this novel — your novel seems to exemplify this. I want to read it, but I don’t think I’m mentally prepared just yet.

    I’m glad you brought up the part of the negative context. Like really, what were they expecting? I’m full on expecting to have a box of tissues beside me — but I feel as though literature like this should be read and shared.

    Great review, love (not a shocker at all ;P )

    Liked by 1 person

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