A River in Darkness: Masaji Ishikawa

★★★

Masaji Ishikawa’s A River in Darkness is the heartbreakingly true story of one man’s horrific life in and eventual escape from North Korea.

A River in Darkness, Masaji Ishikawa

Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to an abusive Korean father and loving Japanese mother. He lived happily in Japan until his thirteenth year, when the North Korean and Japanese governments began promoting Korean nationals’ migration back to their “homeland”. Because North Korea was being called “peace on earth” and touting free education and healthcare, the Ishikawa family got on a boat in search of a better life.

North Korea was nothing like it had been described – this was clear even before setting foot off the boat. Life would never be the same. Struggling for shelter, food, money, work, and survival was a daily occurrence. Ishikawa tells the true story of a country’s ultimate deception and betrayal of its people and the personal hell he and his family found themselves in for decades.

Content Warning

Please take caution while reading A River in Darkness if any of the following topics may trigger you:

  • Abuse
  • Self-harm / suicide
  • Violence
  • Death / dying
  • Pregnancy / childbirth
  • Blood
  • Racism
  • Classism

My Thoughts

A River in Darkness is an honest and straight-forward account of a very bleak life. There is no flowery prose, no serious character development – in short, it’s not fancy. It tells the facts, as Ishikawa sees them. That isn’t to say that the writing isn’t compelling. It’s surprisingly casual and even verging on funny, at times.

Ishikawa’s story is very compelling and terribly heartbreaking. He details his life in North Korea in the earliest days of the tyrannical Kim dynasty and his eventual escape, and it’s crazy interesting. I will say that if you’re expecting a modern-day take on North Korean secrets, this book is not that. Ishikawa lived in North Korea from 1960 to 1996, two generations before Kim Jong-un came into power. His predecessors were just as tyrannical, though.

I felt comfortable giving A River in Darkness a rating of 4 / 5 not only because it was very interesting, but also because – and this is key – it was extremely short. At only 150 pages, this is a one-day read – there’s no downside to reading it. The editing is shoddy – I felt like some points were covered several times and the timeline popped back and forth frequently – but again, this shouldn’t be read as much for its literary prowess as for learning about a morbidly fascinating history that has, in all likelihood, continued into today.

The gravity of the topic never ceases to escape you as you read about Ishikawa’s life. Many Koreans died at the hands of a neglectful and deceptive government, and this is a history that needed to be told and that needs to be read. If you’re interested in North Korea, international affairs, or history in general, I highly recommend A River in Darkness. And even if you aren’t interested in those topics, what’s there to lose? It’s so short and you’ll have learned something.


Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on A River in Darkness. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book in the comment or at my Instagram, @bookmarkedbya.

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