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Rave Review from The Irish Times: Marilyn and Me review: An unlikely friendship

In 1954 Marilyn Monroe visited American troops stationed in Korea.

In 1954 Marilyn Monroe visited American troops stationed in Korea.

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The Korean war (1950-1953) is commonly referred to in the anglophone world as the Forgotten War – but by whom?

The Korean conflict has been consigned to a footnote in American history. This is to underestimate grossly its importance: not only as the first major conflagration and carve-up along Cold War lines, which still resonates today in the Trump administration’s agitation over North Korea’s nuclear capability; but also because of the sheer devastation it caused the country. Between three and four million people lost their lives; as many as 70 per cent were civilians. Destruction was particularly acute in the north, which was subjected to more than two years of sustained American bombing, including the first use of napalm. Roughly 25 per cent of Korea’s prewar population was killed. Damage was also widespread in the south, where Seoul changed hands four times.

Largely elided from American historical discourse, and too painful to be passed on to younger generations of South Koreans by those who survived, in the popular consciousness the most significant fact about the Korean war is that for four days in 1954, Marilyn Monroe entertained American troops stationed there.

This war and its aftermath is the world inhabited by the heroine and first-person narrator of this novel, Alice J Kim – real name Kim Ae-sun. The novel opens in Seoul in February 1954, six months after the armistice but with military tensions still high; American troops are present in force, and the country is devastated. Alice is working as 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 that she is. “Only whores or spies take on an easy to pronounce foreign name.”

Traumatic past

When Marilyn Monroe takes time out from her Japanese honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, Alice is selected as her translator, because of her trilingual skills. With her prematurely grey hair which she dyes with beer, her fraying lace gloves that hide (self-inflicted) burn marks on her hands, and the memories she fears will engulf her, Alice is suffering from PTSD, and so initially subdued in the presence of the famous Hollywood starlet. “War had killed the love and hope and warmth within me, but it had also spared me. I covered my face with my hands, sobbing out the last bit of love to shore up the life remaining inside.”

But as these two women form an unlikely, temporary friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the conflict 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 repress.

‘Screaming refugees’

The narrative alternates between 1954 and the years 1947-50, and much of Alice’s suffering is related to her pre-war love life. Her two ex-lovers, who reappear in her post-war present, are married writer Yo Min-Hwan and Joseph Pines, an American spy posing as a missionary. They form a naïve ménage a trois, which ends abruptly when she betrays one with the other.

She is also haunted by her failure to protect two little girls in her charge during the strife, Yo’s daughter Song-ha, and Chong-nim, an orphan “who grabbed my hand trustingly as we escaped Hungnam amid ten thousand screaming refugees”.

Alice is a suicide survivor who is planning another attempt. Obviously written with an eye to possible filmisation (Lee is a successful screenwriter), hardly a word is wasted in this beautifully written short novel, especially during the early scene-setting sections. However, the cathartic effects, delineated in the denouement, of Alice’s time with Marilyn, are at best tenuous and at worst contrived. It is telling that the only way to get a Western audience interested in a neglected international episode is to drag in one of its most legendary cultural icons, kicking and screaming, rather than focusing solely on the validity of an indigenous woman’s experiences. But maybe that was a calculated compromise, deemed judicious. The work is, nevertheless, a necessary and timely act of reclamation and remembrance for the so-called Forgotten War.