BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Calligrapher’s Daughter: A Novel by Eugenia Kim

Calligrapher's DaughterHistorical works about Korea in English – especially during the tragic years of the Japanese occupation (officially 1910-1945) – seem few and far between. So I really wanted to fall madly in love with this debut novel by fellow Korean American Eugenia Kim.

While I was grateful for the glimpses into my own history, was entertained (and saddened) by the powerful story, I found I couldn’t fully connect with the characters. That they’re based on Kim’s own mother and her family left me feeling that much guiltier. Kim explains in the accompanying publisher’s materials that arrived with the book (interview also available online by clicking here) that the novel began as a work of non-fiction: “I soon realized I couldn’t do justice to the vividness of my family’s stories unless I could make them come more alive – through fiction.” Just to make sure she got it right, Kim even got her MFA first from Bennington College!

The eponymous calligrapher’s daughter, born as Korean self-rule officially falls, is a strong-willed, bright child who causes her strict, noble-born father grave embarrassment and frustration for her outspoken ways. Devalued because of her gender, she goes nameless until the age of five, when a casual description – “her mother is the woman from Nah-jin” – becomes her lifelong name, Najin.

As the family – and the rest of Korea – suffers great tragedy for decades under the vicious Japanese occupation, Najin’s personal strength becomes the family’s anchor. With her mother’s ingenious assistance, Najin manages to get an education in spite of her overbearing father. Together, mother and daughter defy the father’s determination to marry her off at age 14 to a suitably high-born family; instead, Najin’s mother secretly arranges for her only daughter to serve in the ceremonial royal court where she witnesses the treachery of the controlling Japanese. With fierce independence, Najin will be the one to ensure her family’s survival through the decades of the brutal occupation.

So what’s not to madly love about this debut title? Although possibly a result of cultural and historical traps, too many characters prove disappointingly predictable: the traditional father who finally recognizes his daughter’s worth almost too late; the long-awaited only son who grows into a worthless, spoiled adult; the father-in-law who turns out to be mean and petty in spite of being a renowned ‘man of God’; the powerless mother-in-law who remains a vague shadow next to her godly husband; even the title character who is determined to live her own life, but tries far too hard to please everyone around her.

True confessions aside, though, the novel’s ‘sweeping saga’-scope will definitely keep you reading. And, yes, the plot surprises (do NOT read the jacket flap, by the way!) will keep you turning those pages.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009



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