'The Ginseng Hunter': A quiet hero who does not give in
Jeff Talarigo's second novel is a tale of grace in the midst of cruelty
Jeff Talarigo has a remarkable talent: From some of the most horrific experiences a human being might face, he somehow crafts beautiful, haunting works of fiction. He captured the forced confinement of leprosy patients in mid-20th century Japan in his luminous debut novel, "The Pearl Diver." Now four years later, Talarigo offers The Ginseng Hunter, a story of quiet humanity discovered in the midst of overwhelming inhumanity.
The ginseng hunter is a middle-aged Chinese man who lives completely alone on his family farm, located along the Tumen River, which marks the border between rural China and devastated North Korea. He sustains himself by planting a garden every year and searching the surrounding mountains for elusive ginseng roots. Between his fields and the forest, he lives a life of near-silence, broken only once a month when he takes his foraged ginseng to the nearby village to sell. There he visits the local brothel, where he spends an evening with a series of different "Miss Wongs" – his only regular human contact of any kind.
In "the last century's final spring," the ginseng hunter's decades-old routine is broken by the arrival of the latest Miss Wong, with whom he is surprised to learn that he shares the Korean language. Their initial silence slowly melts as month by month they share their stories of escape from the brutal regime across the river. She has fled recently while he is two generations removed, his grandfather having made the initial escape.
Over the year that Talarigo tells the story of the hunter and his escapee lover – and of his lost family and her lost daughter – he reveals the harrowing details of their lives in measured doses. From the smallest flowers to the majestic mountain landscape, Talarigo unobtrusively pays homage to the expansive beauty that still exists all around, as if gently buffering the pain of the landscape's inhabitants.