Merrimon Book Reviews

General power of attorney to Lee Wan-Yong signed and sealed by the last emperor, Sunjong of Korean Empire upon compulsion. Traditionally, the Korean monarch did not sign official documents with his name. In the situation which Japan held hegomony in Korea, the Korean Emperor was forced to follow new Japanese customs.

Emperor of Korea (1907-1910)

Engraving of Confucius

From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Calligrapher's Daughter
The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim
by Eugenia Kim

Moving narrative of artistic restraint
The Japanese occupation looms over Korea at the beginning of Najin Han's life.  Although born into an aristocratic yangban family, Najin's life is marked by this turning point of history transforming her life from her father's unwillingness to name his daughter.  Najin's father, a respected calligrapher and artist, protests against the changes in Korean society and the slow deterioration of the unique Korean identity and traditions.  Raised in a family influenced both by Confucian and Christian faiths, Najin struggles to find her own identity amid the pressures within her family and world events over which she has little control.  When her father tries to marry her into an aristocratic family, her mother defies tradition and sends her to the king's court.  From this moment on, Najin's life takes a turn as hopes within her motivate her and the increasing oppression in the wake of Japan's growing presence limit her ability to follow her dreams.  Torn between ancient traditions and a modern desire to forge a new direction, Najin's life exemplifies patience and faith as she faces the specific challenges of her historical time.

Eugenia Kim's debut novel THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER gives readers a glimpse into a lesser known period of Korean history through the voice of a fictional woman.  Spanning the years 1915 to 1945, Najin's life story looks at a turbulent time of political and financial unrest and change through the lens of the Han family.  As the monarchy fades and the the depression hits, centuries of culture and tradition disappear, not only from political measures but also by the changing pressures as the aristocracy's dominance gives way to a rising, economic need.  Against this historical backdrop, Eugenia Kim tells the story of a woman born into a traditional family but also a woman determined to realize her dreams.  Despite the difficulties that her father's goals present to her, Najin has a certain generosity of spirit in the ways in which she describes her family.  The relationship to her father and her growth in understanding his values present some of the most poignant moments of the narrative, particularly as she describes her father's art. 

The straightforward narrative style of THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER adds a subtle beauty to this novel.  On the surface, the novel relates the events without the intensity or tension-filled emotion a reader might expect given the historical setting.  As the book unfolds, however, the beauty of this novel lies in the restraint.  Although the narrator Najin does not hide the atrocities of the Japanese occupation, neither does she subordinate the narrative to a political diatribe.  Indeed, some of the images achieve their power precisely because they emerge through the process of the narrative and the reader's imagination rather than the author overdramatizing those moments.  At times the sadness of a whole world in transition can be evoked in the image of the father's changing relationship to his art.  Najin's and her mother's Christian faith form an integral part of the story and yet, so does doubt.  THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER is not a simplistic novel of faith inspiring a person during the worst of times nor does it use Confucianism as a simplistic opposition to Christianity.  The story of Najin's marriage also develops over time as Najin's immediate world changes, allowing the reader to feel the inner force of Najin's character.  Eugenia Kim tells her story from inside out as Najin's feelings and steadfastness take prominence over actual individual events.  At first glance, the initial pacing of the story might seem slow to some readers, particularly in contrast to dramatic works of fiction, but herein lies the power of THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER.  The emotions evoked emerge all the more powerfully for the author's ability to incorporate artistic restraint and sparseness within the narrative, allowing the images to speak for themselves.  THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER is the kind of novel that almost sneaks up on a reader with its beauty, but that beauty is most striking and memorable.

Publisher: Henry Holt (August 2009)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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