Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim

January 2010, Bloomsbury
400 pages, Paperback
Review Copy

Fiction (I call it historical fiction)

Cushions: 4
Daggers: 1
Paperclips: 4 (but infrequent)
Smiles: 2
Tissues: 5
Yunaleska's recommended rating: ♥♥♥♥

Summary from Bloomsbury

Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country.

When he seeks to marry fourteen-year-old Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her daughter to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.

In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will change her world forever. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher's Daughter is an exquisite novel about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

This is a case where the cover enhances how I feel about the story in a positive way. I looked at it, and thought that it would be a beautiful read. That assumption was correct. Unlike a few other books like this, for a fair part of the novel, before Najin is married, she is treated quite well. Okay, so her father didn't name her - but he has reasons for that which are revealed later on in his point of view. She is brought up well mannered and modest. She has a sense of humour, and is loved very much by her mother. So much that her mother risks going against her husband's orders to see that Najin's happiness remains.

That isn't to say her father doesn't respect her. In his own way, he does. He doesn't beat her. He permits her to learn and work (after a few nudges in the right direction). He wants life a certain way - but that doesn't happen, for many reasons. I liked it that Najin lived in a happy home. She's such a good sister to her younger brother, who I feel doesn't appreciate how much she loves him.

The book has opened up my eyes to world history. I knew so little about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Learning how it affected people in their everyday lives, how they prepared rebellions secretly, plotting for many months even though they risked severe punishment shows the strength people gain when they wish to stand up for their rights.

Initially Najin doesn't know much about the rebellion. Her mother refuses to tell her everything, even when her father becomes involved. But, after her time spent with the princess of Korea, she matures and her mother reveals a bit more. Najin is a compassionate girl, and keeps the level of caring and passion as she grows up. She always wants to help those less fortunate. She enjoys being a teacher, although finds it difficult with the constraints the Japanese imposed on all teachers.

Naturally her father wants her married - but the first choice isn't suitable. She doesn't like the next candidate - at least, not at first. I truly loved the courtship between Najin and Calvin. It is a perfect portrayal of how courtship can be. Through conversation and various meetings, Najin comes to realise Calvin is suited for her, and that she has feelings for him. I was so happy when she agreed to marry him. However, this happiness was tempered by what followed.

The moment of joy when she agreed to marry him, was soon marred by her experience of living as his wife. Life is cruel to the new couple, but somehow Najin pulls herself through it all. She doesn't give up, she makes sure her family are well cared for, which isn't easy when food is scarce and any item is hard to come by. Because of her marriage, the Japanese become interested in her. This interest isn't positive, and had me reading on the edge of my seat, hand by my mouth as I read about the horrors in Najin's life.

I can divulge that the ending is more than satisfactory, and I needed a tissue. All the story lines are tied up, the vivid descriptions carry on until the end. I look forward to future works by Eugenia Kim.

Eugenia has an informative website for the book here.

If you liked this, try The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent.

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