by Eugenia Kim
Born the daughter of a calligrapher-scholar, the young narrator goes unnamed for several years. Her father, distracted by the Japanese occupation and his artistic pursuits, lets time drift by without bothering to find a name for his child, so eventually she claims one on her own: Najin, the name of her mother’s hometown. Thanks to the determination of her mother and the help of local Christian missionaries, Najin is blessed with a fine education, but her desire to continue with it instead of marrying in her early teens enrages her traditional father, who has already found her a match. Again, Najin’s mother intervenes, and arranges through a noble kinswoman for Najin to be a companion to a princess. However, it is not long before the king is assassinated, and the occupying Japanese make life harder for the Koreans. Home again, Najin is married off to a young pastor who proposes that she accompany him to America to study medicine. Najin’s joy is cut short when her passport is denied by the Japanese, and she is forcibly separated from her husband. As months turn into years, Najin must remain strong and support her family as war erupts around them.
Based on the life of the author’s mother, Najin lives in a very tumultuous time. She must grow into a strong woman, because her family has no one else with the capacity to adapt to the rapid changes in society. Her father still thinks about Korea as a highly stratified society where noble scholars can peacefully spend their days reading and painting. Her spoiled brother expects to inherit his father’s position and wastes his energy on gambling and visiting teahouses/whorehouses. Najin’s mother is perceptive enough to see that the world is changing and that tradition cannot continue to dictate their actions, but she is too old and too undereducated to effect change. She pours great effort into getting Najin the opportunities she did not have, living vicariously through her daughter.
Najin is a sympathetic character, torn between her loyalties to her family and her own dreams. Though she is very liberal by her family’s standards, to us she seems quite conservative. She works hard and sacrifices much to support her brother because he is the family’s heir. After her marriage, she is little more to a servant to her in-laws, slaving away for them day after day for the sake of a husband she knew for only a few weeks. Although some of her devotion may stem from a lack of opportunity elsewhere, it is the strong Confucian influence on Korean culture that binds her to her parents.
Set during the years between the two World Wars, Najin’s life illustrates the harsh, brutal reality of life under the Japanese regime. The suffering of the Koreans is what really lingers after the book is over, and is more compelling than Najin’s personal story.
Compared to China and Japan, Korea’s history remains largely obscure to a Western audience. I can recite the names of the Chinese dynasties and name contemporary TV shows and writers from Japan, but ask me to discuss anything about Korea that isn’t food and I will draw a blank. In the past few years, though, South Korea has been gaining greater recognition as K-pop has increased in popularity and Korean dramas stream online. So a novel like The Calligrapher’s Daughter was very well-timed, arriving on bookshelves just as interest in Korea was beginning to rise.
5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Colossus Rises (Seven Wonders #1) by Peter Lerangis
2012: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012: The White Snake
2011: Off to Ashland for a few days!
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: Vacation in Yosemite