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Brother One Cell by Cullen Thomas

An intimately and sensitively written story of 3.6 years imprisonment in South Korea. Among the obvious big lessons conveyed, there are so many little truths that rise out of this story and out of Thomas’s accomplished writing, and those—along with the obvious hard work put into this book and his vivid and creative metaphors—rewarded me throughout. There is an urgency and immediacy that held me, and made me carry this awkward hardcover even on the crowded bus, elbowing others in order to keep turning pages. The research into the material is impressive and seamless, and while Thomas’s Anglicized Hangul felt awkward at times, the integration of it worked well and was important.

A succinct passage in the very center of the book about a collection of moments seemed to me such an apt description of how the book is structured: ‘Viewed as a whole, this journey is years, but I can see that it’s really just a collection of moments: uncountable moments here, some joyful, others an awesome struggle, the same as everywhere. We really live only for a moment, but we can’t see that when we stack together so many behind us, pile them up in front.’ He writes without sentimentality (plus warts and all), though there is much sentiment in the writing and much sympathy for the characters—a very fine and difficult balance to achieve.

Part of what I connected to in this book is his ability to convey in Western terms so much of what it is about being Korean, along with universal truths about being simply human and showing clearly how those considered the bottom rungs of society are also us. This book’s organic wholeness brings together so many opposing and extreme forces raised within the story, emotional, physical, conditional, familial, cultural, that it achieves as much an elusive and beautiful balance as does the taeguk of the Korean flag.

BrotherOneCell-web

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