Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have You Been Korea?

To make this review all about me right from the start, Flower, I want to tell you about the startling revelation that came to me after reading "The Calligrapher's Daughter". I realized that in all my many years of reading novels set in Asia that this was the first one with a Korean setting that I had ever read. It's true. I can hardly believe it. I was as shocked as you are right now.

Ever since I discovered the satisfyingly chubby books of James Clavell (no relation to Miss Clavel as far as I know) the summer between high school and college I have hungered after novels set in Asia. So how did I miss Korea? There must be wonderful books out there set in Korea, right? Why are they unknown to me? As a buyer for an independent bookstore and wholesaler for 20 years I read every catalog every season from every publisher in order to do my buys and I cannot recall any Korean historical novels.

About 2 years ago an excellent contemporary novel about the daughter of Korean immigrants was published by Grand Central Publishing. It was "Free Food For Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee. You read it too didn't you Flower? I thought it was terrific. After I read it I wrote about it for our company newsletter and I was able to handsell it quite well. It's the classic second generation torn between duty to parents and the desire to attain what's perceived as All-American Success tale. The characters however were unique and intriguing, there was lots of humor in the book and the writing was first rate. I will definitely read what comes next from Min Jin Lee and I hope that good news makes her hurry up and finish whatever she's working on.

So? Back to no Korean historical novels. Where are they? If you know of any I'd love to hear.

In the broad strokes, "The Calligrapher's Daughter" is about the Japanese forcible annexation of Korea in 1910 that lasted until 1945 and Korea's entrance into the modern world after the horrors of the Japanese occupation ended. Up until 1910 the (united) Korea had been peacefully ruled for over 500 years by the Joseon Dynasty.

The intimate story of the novel is the life of the unnamed daughter of a successful calligrapher. Coming as she did with the Japanese so to speak the daughter is viewed by her father Han as a shame brought on the family and Han refuses to name the girl. As the Japanese take over more and more of the government, police and culture in Korea, Han becomes bitter and resentful. He is an artist and activist, a scholar who struggles to recapture Korea's glory and independence.

Najin's life, as the daughter is nicknamed at age 8, parallels her country's subjugation and modernization. She longs to fulfill both her Father's ideal of womanhood (essentially seen, not heard and make me another baby) and to get an education. When at 14 she gets unexpected help from her Mother to escape a marriage arranged by her Father and go and live in the King's court, it is her ticket to an education and to creating her own destiny. Of course it is not smooth sailing from then on in, but to know more about the plot you'll have to read the book.

The author, Eugenia Kim, based this novel on the life of her Mother. Kim's family story, detailed research and gentle writing style make Calligrapher's well worth reading. She does an excellent job capturing the desires for a lost world and the longing to have a future of your own.

"The Calligrapher's Daughter" is not without flaws. The religious aspects of the story, although important to the storyline, sometimes come across as preachy and the novel is written in such a completely straight forward and secondary plot-less manner that it does occasionally feel as though you are reading an upper level young adult novel. However. I have thoroughly enjoyed the book and I have learned an immense amount about Korean history and culture.--That has been fascinating and it's left me wanting more.

So where are those Korean novels?


P.S. I think the cover is beautiful and it did make me pick the book up to look at. Congrats to the designer!

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