Some of my favorite literary characters are Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Pi Patel (Life of Pi), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), and Annie Fang (The Family Fang). Now, I can add another character to the list: Soo-Ja Choi, the heroine of Samuel Park’s debut novel This Burns My Heart. Employing such themes as tradition, love, and sacrifice, Park captivated and transported me to a different time and place. I never wanted to return from the vivid world of his creation.
South Korea in the early 1960s is a country slowly recovering from the ravages of war. Tradition is of utmost importance. Soo-Ja, a young woman, yearns to become a diplomat, even though her father forbids it. Marriage to a man she can bend to her will is the answer, Soo-Ja thinks. If she marries Min, then she can fulfill her dream. The two become engaged after a brief courtship. Before their marriage, she meets a young, handsome medical student named Yul. Sparks fly. She must sense that she and Yul could experience a deeper love, a love that would overpower her ambition, and this scares Soo-Ja. Even if she wanted to run away with Yul, she cannot do it; she has already given her word.
Out of obligation, then, Soo-Ja marries Min. She soon learns that she does not really know the man she married. Min was never captivated by her beauty or wit, he did not enjoy spending time with her, and he indulged her talk of going to Seoul. He tricked her, seeking her out only at the urging of his own father. Familial ties and tradition win out over Soo-Ja’s dreams. Her marriage is something she will have to endure. Later, Soo-Ja stays with Min because of their daughter, Hana. Over and over again, though, Yul turns up in her life. He is always a looming shadow even when he is not present in her life. The best parts of the novel are the soulful, yearning-filled scenes between Soo-Ja and Yul. Will she ever leave Min for Yul? That is a question you must find out yourself.
Park has a gift for language, and his use of beautiful prose will leave you breathless. His rich and memorable characters lingered on in my mind long after I finished the novel. Park proves himself to be a master at storytelling. This Burns My Heart will surely steal your heart, just as it did mine.