Book: The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
The title of this review, “Travel to Korea,” seems a little misleading. In fact, this book time travels to a Korea that existed when our grandparents and great-grandparents were around. Calligrapher’s Daughter tells the moving story of a Korean family that lived in isolated country in the first half of the twentieth century.
While individuals in the family reflect various splinters of the society the author does not make them cardboard cutouts, created merely to illustrate her history lesson.
The father of the family, stubbornly intent on preserving traditional Korean culture, shows personal courage in standing up to the Japanese occupiers as a member of the resistance. The mother bends her compliant personality, shaped by Confucianism and Christianity to quietly challenge her husband when it comes to her daughter.
The main character, a daughter who has no official name, cannot be traditional enough to please her father, but still dresses in old-fashioned style and is shocked by people who have adopted Western habits. Public displays of affection, allowing a man to walk beside her instead of in front of her, or the failure to use the proper and sometimes complex form of address embarrass her in a way quite foreign to the brash American reader.
When she needs a name, Najin, the birthplace of her mother suffices. She was born shortly after the beginning of Japanese occupation of Korea, and the novel traces her life through increasing oppressive rule, through depression and the “big war,” to the liberation of Korea by American and Russia. The family Najin is born in to is wealthy and lineage-proud, having lived on their estate for many generations. The reader sees how world events affect this family and their friends, but only hear hints of what will happen to Korea after World War II.
In the only part of the book that seems contrived, Najin goes to live in the palace, serving as companion to a princess and lives there at the time of the death of the last Emperor of Korea.
I have never traveled to Korea. Before I read this book, I knew nothing about Korean history before the Korean War in the 1950’s, and American involvement with the divided Korea, and even less about the intricacies of their religious and social culture. The Christian religion, overlaying ancient Confucianism, motivates the characters in this book. The internal struggle Najin faces in trying to accept her mother and financé’s belief in Christianity joins her struggle to balance self-expression with proper traditional behavior.
The book lures the modern reader into the life of a more formal past. In fact, the author echoes the careful, quiet, progress of a proper Korean woman in her choice of emphasis and pace. Sometimes this particular reader was tempted to skip over a few pages and get things moving at a faster pace. Here is an example from late in the book:
I sipped [the tea], thanking the particles of tea leaves for absorbing the sun’s heat on dewy terraced mountains, growing fat and lustrous, then drying in the same heat, preserving God’s grace in a fragile, fragrant medium for me to drink at this table.
However, if you like your prose lush and complex, you may have more patience than I. And the book is not always written like an ancient Confucian poem, as this passage is. Despite my occasional impatience, my curiosity and the author’s skillful plotting drove me forward. The author handles dialogue beautifully, bringing each character to life.
I like this book for re-creating for me a time and a place that was totally new. If you are planning to travel to Korea, or just curious about its culture, I highly recommend The Calligrapher’s Daughter. (And I thank Henry Holt publishing for supplying the book for this discussion.).
The photos are from Flickr. Top photo by Devid Andriano and traditional dress photo by Tonio Vega.