ruzmarì's Reviews > The Calligrapher's Daughter

The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim
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Jan 20, 12

Read in November, 2011

Eugenia Kim's novel transports us into Japan-occupied Korea, in the first half of a twentieth century that is sometimes only familiar because of the dates she uses as chapter headings. Kim does an excellent job portraying this lost culture as a bygone way of life, even a bygone place : the dynasty that has ruled the country for centuries is dissolving, then ultimately collapses altogether when Korea's last king is assassinated. The main character, Najin Han – who gets her name from her mother's place of origin, since her father refuses to give her a first name upon her birth – lives and narrates the steady crumbling of her family's prestige and wealth, the traditions of a dynastic culture, and the demise of a political regime, all through a feminine lens. She, in a deftly wrought complication of emotional prose, proves herself a woman of valor while accepting her role as secondary to her good-for-nothing brother, Ilsun (who is himself nonetheless written with pathos and depth). Through her eyes we see the collapse of the royal family, the famine and poverty under Japanese rule, and the wrenching loss of her own family's estate and traditions.

Najin has a creative and courageous spirit, and the novel shows her over and over again unafraid to take risks. Most of these are for the purpose of saving herself (from an arranged marriage, from a set of abusive and manipulative in-laws). Sometimes she is forced to pull herself up sharply when she realizes that a risk she has taken has put her entire family and their way of life in jeopardy. She frequently finds herself torn between what her family's and culture's ancient traditions demand of Korean women, and what she sees as possibilities for a new life in an increasingly changed and modern world that is so much wider than Korea.

The novel is mostly well crafted and enjoyable, its heroine/narrator someone we want alternately to cheer on, hug, or fight for. We are frustrated when Najin is frustrated; we feel her shame when she finds herself rebuffed once again by a father whose rigid traditions and participation in the Korean resistance make him unable to see his daughter as a valid subject; we itch when she does, to have her abilities and accomplishments taken seriously in a society dominated by and constructed around the abilities and accomplishments of men. It is a great portrait of a modern woman and her struggle to exist in a world not quite ready for her. And yet, it is not a great novel, and that's the perplexing piece. It might be because it simply too long, and the author gets lost in the complexities of her own creation. Each section reads vividly, but the pacing is uneven, the prose occasionally limpid and occasionally far too dense, and the character developments are not as believable as we would like them to be. (The Princess, for example, is a fabulous intervention, but I don't for a second believe that Najin manages to stifle the independent spirit that rankles in her father's house to become essentially a lady-in-waiting with court manners.) Then, Kim occasionally dangles a thrilling plot possibility, only to get distracted and drop it. Calvin, Najin's husband, apparently writes her dozens, hundreds, thousands of letters during the time he is in seminary in America while she lives as indentured domestic labor for his parents and a pettily competitive other daughter-in-law … but though we see the gigantic stack of letters, it is swiftly whisked away and Najin never even asks why she did not receive them. The letters offer a possibility for narrative cohesion (maybe the other daughter-in-law intercepted them, to increase Najin's isolation?), but Kim does not follow through, just hints at the letters' being confiscated for some obscure reason. Which is certainly believable, but not satisfying.

That's perhaps the main problem with the book : it takes creative liberties with reality on large points (for example, Calvin's and Najin's mysterious reconnection after the war; Ilsun's wife's convenient death by consumption), but leaves the small ones, the ones where a reader could be convinced to continue suspending disbelief, dangling. At the end of the novel, we have a sort of patchwork of female experience over fifty years, first in the heartbreakingly settling ashes of a dying regime, then in the postwar rubble as a country tries to rebuild itself. The thread that carries us through Najin's childhood to her hard-won education and life as an adult woman in a household of her own should act as a guide through the labyrinth of a place and system so foreign that most American readers will not recognize even the first thing about it. Instead, it is a thread we sometimes have to build ourselves. A good read indeed, but with reservations.
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