Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Calligrapher's Daughter : Eugenia Kim

Soft, gentle prose shapes an unnamed girl’s story as she endures a diminished pedigree, loss of hopes and home together with a failed marriage during the Japanese occupation of Korea in Eugenia Kim's The Calligrapher's Daughter.

A traditional, upperclass Korean man, the girl’s father shows his disappointment at the birth of a daughter, by declining to name her when her birth coincides with the fall of Korea to the Japanese. Najin, as the girl comes to be nicknamed at age eight, struggles to understand her namelessness. Her future clouded by her father’s opposition and sweeping government reforms, Najin cobbles together a delicate balance of her father’s ideals and the reality of Korea under Japanese rule.

Kim’s sweeping tale offers a woman’s perspective on Korea’s strict patriarchal society. Heavy with sentiment, Kim tells her mother’s winding story in an uncomplicated way. It may be historically accurate that protestant religions flourished in Korea long before missionaries arrived, but the Christian motif runs a bit rampant here, overly pedantic and at times even pushy. Thorough as a sermon, the underlying religious aspect of the novel is inseparable from its characters and, in fact, largely motivates them. At the root of the book is the bond of family, which Kim beautifully displays. Holding true to the emotional restraint of the characters, Kim heightens a reader’s ability to infer meaning from tone, posture and word selection.

No one expected anything of her, an unnamed Korean girl. But her honest struggles with identity, education, marriage and faith will resonate deeply, striking a bright and surprisingly modern chord with readers.

The Pros(e)
  • Thoroughly researched with references American readers may find startling, in the best way.
  • Packed with information about Korea's struggles with Japan
  • Culturally, the book offers a broad look at Korea's class struggle before, during and after World War II as well as family dynamics, friendships and the educational pyramid. I found all of it fascinating.
  • While the book isn't billed as Christian fiction, it could be. Prepare yourself for a mild conversion experience, or at least considerable guilt.
  • Sentimentality shouldn't be ridden like a horse. Let's just assume everyone's mother is beautiful, brilliant and amazing, so we can move along without all this foot dragging
10 Words or Less
Solid, sentimental story of a girl's struggles in occupied Korea.

Review based on a free copy of this book, courtesy of the publisher.

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