Ruined by Reading

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Fiction, Historical Fiction by M on August 3, 2009

Title: The Calligrapher’s Daughter
Author: Eugenia Kim
Pages: 400
Rating: 4/5

In early twentieth century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother – but her stern father is desperate to maintain the ways of traditional Korea, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry her into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends Najin to serve in the king’s court, where, in the shadow of a dying monarchy, she begins a journey through the increasing oppressing that will forever change her world. Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a novel in the tradition of Lisa See about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a story of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century, told through the life of Najin, a young girl who comes of age during a time of modernization and revolution. She’s caught between her desire to be an independent, educated woman, and her father’s desire for the old ways where the elite scholarly class ran society, and women are seen as inferior.

Najin does not actually have a proper given name. It is revealed throughout the book that her father refuses to name her because he sees her as a symbol of the occupation and Korea’s fall. It’s shocking and sad how much her father actually detests her. He sees her as a shame to the family.

The thing that really shocked me the most about Korean traditions and culture at this time is how women were treated. I knew nothing of Korea prior to reading this book. Women were to be seen and not heard, were less than men, and were seen as really just machines there to have children and serve dinner. Even within the family, the women’s area is kept separate from the man’s, and man and wife don’t even eat dinner together. One proverb even says that a woman without talent is a virtue. I have no idea if these traditions or attitudes were specific to the class Najin’s family belonged to, or if it was more universal. But the arrival of Christianity and the Japanese occupation really changed the opportunities women had and the attitude towards them.

The thing I really loved about Kim’s style of writing was how beautiful and poetic it was. It was perfectly descriptive without being too over the top and distracting from the story. Here’s an example:

My hands reached to catch the sunshine poking between the leaves, and my feet traced the maze of shadows that I pretended would lead to a cave of glories and awe.

The only problem I had with the book was that the description didn’t actually match the story. I had originally thought it would be a book about court intrigue and drama, like a lot of the historical fiction I read. But it’s not. It’s about the life of Najin, her family, and Korea.

I learned a lot from this book, and I would definitely read anything else Kim puts out.

Thank you to the publisher and to Library Thing Early Reviewers for sending me this book. This book will be available for purchase on August 4, 2009.


3 Responses

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  1. Angel said, on August 3, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    What a wonderful book review. I will search my local library during my next library raid!

  2. S. Krishna said, on August 4, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I really liked this book as well, but I agree, it wasn’t what I expected based on the synopsis. Nice review!

  3. mee said, on August 14, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I’ve never heard of this book before. It sounds interesting. I’m especially interested because of the Korean setting. I’ve never read any books set in Korea or by Korean authors, just because the ones I know have not really screamed at me to be read. This could be a good candidate.

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