The Calligrapher’s Daughter is Eugenia Kim’s debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author’s heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother’s life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort.
Many Korean patriots, however, refused to submit to the inevitable – and they paid a heavy price for their resistance. Najin Han’s father was one of those. Najin began life as her Christian family’s first born child, enjoying the comfortable lifestyle her well known artist father was able to provide. But, though she was too young to recognize it, all was not well in her world. By the time she was five years old, Japan was well into its efforts to annex her country and her father had begun to attract the attention of local Japanese authorities concerned with snuffing out the resistance.
Over the course of the next thirty years, Najin will struggle to carve out an independent life for herself, one with which her tradition bound father will never be completely happy. Najin is fortunate, however, to have as ally a mother willing to defy her husband in the best interest of her daughter. Rather than capitulate to her husband’s decision to marry off his 14-year-old daughter (to the 12-year-old son of an old friend of his), Mrs. Han secretly sends Najin to the royal court in Seoul where Najin’s dream of an education is made possible.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter is, though, as much the story of 20th century Korea as it is an engaging family saga. Readers, like me, whose sense of Korean history begins with the Korean War of the 1950s and ends with the horrors perpetrated by the almost cartoonish North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, will come away from the book with a new appreciation of Korean culture and the suffering its people have endured for the last 100 years. They will also become emotionally attached to Najin and her family as they follow the course of Najin’s life and everything that happens to her during this violent period in Korean history.
Some readers may find the book’s initial pacing to be a bit sluggish. I want to encourage those readers not to give up on the book too quickly because its pacing mimics that of Japan’s efforts to assimilate Korea – things begin to happen quicker and quicker as the country, and the book, move toward their climaxes.
Rated at: 4.0