Often ranked as having one of the best education systems in the world, South Korea annually boasts high standardized test scores. However, hidden behind those scores are the youth who daily carry the burden of living in a highly competitive, academic-driven society. In mina, Kim Sagwa explores the psyche of Crystal, the protagonist, and her relationship with her best friend Mina, and Mina’s brother, Minho.

“It’s not normal. Cram school, home, school, test, school, cram school, homework, tutor, cram school, home, tutor, cram school, home, school, back to cram school, back to tutor, back for a test back to homework back to school back to school back to school. Home. Cram school. How can anyone think this is normal? It’s crazy. Everyone’s crazy,” says Mina.

With books about children’s education ranging from “how to” book about getting into Ivy League colleges or scoring high SAT scores, to books about the best food for a child’s brain filling Korean bookstores, this novel uniquely looks at the perspective of the youth.

In mina, Kim Sagwa masterfully navigates the internal struggles of adolescence through her depiction of Crystal. While the novel is written primarily in third-person, it occasionally switches to a first-person narrative, allowing readers to have glimpses of Crystal’s internal thoughts as she interacts with the other characters.

Throughout mina, we see the evolution of Crystal from being a well-composed, high achieving student (at least outwardly), to an individual who unravels as a result of the surmounting pressures and inner discord she experiences. Like an unopened coke bottle that is heavily shaken, we witness an adolescent with no outlet for her frustrations, confusion, fears, and anger, finally explode violently, unable to stay composed under all the pressure.

While the novel is written in the perspective of adolescents, one can’t help but wonder where the adults in these youth’s lives are. With the majority of students’ time spent at school or cram school, the most we see of adults are infrequent phone calls from their parents.

Despite the lack of adult presence, Kim Sagwa portrays how these adults are also part of an unending cycle of conformity and competition. In a way, the novel acts as a commentary upon a society that demands perfections and discards anyone who fails to conform to its standards.

In mina, Kim Sagwa gives readers a jarring account of the lives of youth in South Korea, who’s daily schedules consist of going to school, attending cram school, doing homework and studying. Through the characters, readers are able to witness the unspoken tolls a highly competitive society has on its youth.

The novel, while masterfully written, is filled with suspense and is not for the faint of heart. Ultimately, the novel challenges readers to reflect on their own psyche, question the status quo, and critically examine the norms that govern societal expectations and behaviors.

Author Kim Sagwa appears with local translators, Bruce & Ju Chan Fulton to discuss her book “mina” on Friday, October 19 at 7:00 PM at Elliott Bay Book Company. 1521 Tenth Avenue in Seattle.

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