Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Julie's Review: The Calligrapher's Daughter

Summary:This debut novel, inspired by the life of the author's Korean mother, is a beautiful, deliberate and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history. The tradition-bound aristocratic calligrapher Han refuses to name his daughter because she is born just as the Japanese occupy Korea early in the 20th century. When Han finds a husband for Najin (nicknamed after her mother's birthplace) at 14, her mother objects and instead sends her to the court of the doomed royal Yi family to learn refinement. Najin goes to college and becomes a teacher, proving herself not only as a scholar but as a patriot and humanitarian. She returns home to marry, but her new husband goes without her to study in America when she is denied a visa. As the Japanese systematically obliterate ancient Korean culture and the political climate worsens, so do Najin's fortunes. Her family is reduced to poverty, their home is seized and Najin is imprisoned as a spy while WWII escalates. The author writes at a languorous pace, choosing not to sully her elegant pages with raw brutality, but the key to the story is Korea's monumental suffering at the hands of the Japanese. ~amazon.com

Review: I love reading historical fiction for the reason that I almost always learn something new and in the case of The Calligrapher's Daughter it is no different. As much as I loved the personal aspect of the story, the history was just as interesting and informative. There's so much history out there that you never learn about. For instance I never knew that: 1) Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, 2) Korea was under Japanese rule 3) The major religion in Korea was Christianity thanks to the influence of Western Missionaries, and 4) Most Koreans felt Christianity was a good fit with Confucianism because of the same morals and they could still practice traditions.

With all of that being said, this novel is a very personal one since it's based on the author's mother's life. With that said it's a work of fiction and not a memoir. We meet Najin when she is 4 years old and follow her through most of her life, which also chronicles the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is the reason that her father won't name her; she was born the day that Japan was declared the ruler of Korea.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the relationship between Najin and her mother. I also loved the fact that the author made these women both strong in character and strong in mind. Perhaps it's knowing that these women existed in a time when women were not allowed to think for themselves and consider careers outside the home. We see Najin develop into a lovely, independent woman who find that her father's way of thinking is so classical.

The one character that I did not like at all was Islun, Najin's younger brother. He was a brat growing up and became an extremely self-centered man. He only ever thought of himself and drove his family into poverty because of his selfishness.

My favorite part of the book was when Najin marries Calvin and her life after that. I felt that she really came into her own and proved what she was made of, not only to herself but to her father as well.

I would highly recommend this book if you are a fan of historical fiction and particularly of Asian Historical Fiction. I will warn you the book can go into serious detail and does drag at parts, but the end result is well worth it.

I would love to know what happened to Ms. Kim's mother and father and how they came to the U.S.

Stay tuned to the blog for a giveaway of this wonderful book and a Q&A with Ms. Kim.

Final Take: 4.0/5


Diane October 13, 2009 at 3:06 PM  

I thought this book was great too; lovely cover as well. Great review you wrote; thanks

Serena October 15, 2009 at 4:07 PM  

I've got this on the tbr list already and I can't wait to get to it.

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