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Book review: Eugenia Kim — The Calligrapher’s Daughter

The Calligraphers DaughterEugenia Kim: The Calligrapher’s Daughter
Bloomsbury, 2010

Eugenia Sun-hee Kim’s first novel is based in part on the life of her mother, who was born in Japanese-occupied Korea and later emigrated to America after having lived to see liberation.

The key characters in the novel are Najin – born on the day that Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and never properly named by her father because of the uncertainties of the times (and as a result she went by the name of the town where her mother was born) – and Ilsun (First Son), who was born in the optimistic time immediately before the March the First demonstrations in 1919.

The father, one of the traditional yangban literati class, was rather more than a calligrapher: his ink paintings were to be found adorning a screen in the royal palace, but possibly Calligrapher’s Daughter is as good a title as any, and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge of Joseon Korean society. The book has received widespread praise and while its cover artwork seems to pitch the novel at the female reader it should not be pigeon-holed in such a way.

The book charts the path of Najin’s life story for the period when Korea was under Japanese rule, and we see the decline of the landed aristocracy (as the lands are appropriated by the Japanese) and the emergence of a very different Korea at the end of the Second World War when the Americans arrive in Seoul and such formerly privieleged families now have to live on their wits and by hard work. A key element in the story is the prominent role played by the American protestant churches in the 1919 Independence movement and subsequently in the development of Korea through the support for female education. The widespread acceptance of such muscular Christianity by Koreans, including the aristocracy, who simultaneously supported the guerrilla movement in Manchuria makes it more poignant that the regime which ultimately arose from that movement – the Kim family Stalinist dictatorship – now oppresses Christianity. This irony is highlighted in the novel by (presumably deliberately) giving Kim Il-sung’s name a bit more currency in 1935 than it probably had in reality.

With so many things to fit into the narrative, and so many years to cover, it is hardly a surprise to find moments which seem significant in the personal history of the characters and the social history of the country are skated over. For example, Najin’s first realisation of herself as a sexual being is narrated without much preparation and left hanging thereafter; the rape and suicide of the young school teacher are narrated with the restraint that Najin is trained to exercise in dealing with members of the royal court; and young Ilsun’s dalliances in the tea houses are described mainly as a drain on family finances rather than as anything of social significance. And when Najin had spent her early years as a good and faithful Christian, her loss of faith is completely unexplained.

Many of the novels which cover the colonial period were actually written at the time or shortly thereafter. The accounts gain in vividness through being eyewitness accounts, stories told by people who had lived through the times. The advent of the “new woman” – educated, wanting to make her way in the world – seems so much more controversial in such contemporary accounts. Looking back from the first decade of the 21st century, when many of such battles have been won, The Calligrapher’s Daughter fails to capture some of the turbulence of the times. While the author has clearly done her research, the narrative does not grab you in the way that a novel actually written at the time does. However, its strength is to present a picture of the speed of change in early 20th century Korea in a way that is accessible to 21st century readers.


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