Marilyn and Me – Ji-min Lee
I picked this on a complete whim. In fact, the only reason it appealed to me was because I am interested in Marilyn Monroe’s life and because I have read absolutely nothing that is based in Korea, let alone anything that features the Korean War which is a conflict I’ve never really heard anything about. My good God, this was so much more than I expected it to be! If you take anything away from this ramble, just know that this is a powerful and gripping story that packs one hell of a story into a very small amount of pages.
Set in 1954, in the aftermath of the Korean war, Marilyn and Me unfolds over the course of four days, when Marilyn Monroe took time out from her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, performing for the US soldiers stationed there. Her translator is Alice, a typist on the US base – where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes she is. As these two women form an unlikely friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the war emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to forget.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is such a short book and the cover is pink and cute, this is one hard hitting and engaging novel that was over all too quickly for me.
While this is about Marilyn Monroe and is based on her real life visit to American soldiers based in South Korea following the Korean War, it is almost a sub plot. This focuses much more on Marilyn’s translator, Alice, a woman who is dealing with severe PTSD after her experiences during the war. We move between the time before the Korean War, during the war and the 1954 when the south is occupied by American soldiers and starting to rebuild places like Seoul that have been devastated by the fighting. Alice is definitely a fascinating hero and the more we learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.
The introduction of Marilyn Monroe gives Alice a chance to compare her life with someone elses, we all know that Marilyn’s was a life of hardship and pain, but so was Alice’s, this is a woman who is traumatised by the horrors of war and is still affected by not only her experiences of the war, but also her connection to the men she loved and lost before the war even began. Her chance meeting with Marilyn opens up an unlikely friendship and through this, Alice is given a glimpse at hope and joy, despite her struggles and her past catching up to her. I mentioned before that this is a short book, it is, standing at just 176 pages, but there is a lot going on in those pages, Marilyn and Me is a book about war and trauma, it is about loneliness and of course female friendship and the life of a Hollywood starlet.
Marilyn and Me is a dark, but sumptuously written story and for something written in Korean and then translated into English, works really well. The descriptions and the use of language aren’t lost in translation and if anything, makes the whole thing much more immersive. The narration isn’t in any way perfect (is anything?), there are a bit too many tight lipped smiles for my liking, but there is nothing rushed or dragged out about it, so those little repetitions are nothing more than a small niggle.