By Lucia Orth, www.luciaorth.com
Deep knowledge of culture and the story of a girl’s yearning and survival make Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter a captivating read.
Kim, the daughter of Korean immigrants, sets her novel in early 20th-century Korea, from the time of the Japanese invasion to the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945.
“I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” The story is Najin’s–as she comes to be called–born at the time Korea was made a colony of Japan. Najin is a bold girl in a family who wanted a boy.
Kim’s language is lovely. “They cannot suppress forty-five centuries of a people in one season of violence,” says Najin’s father. When the girl sees her young teacher sitting in desolation after a night’s visit by Japanese soldiers, “The morning shadows made her appear as translucent and still as a block of salt.” Many of the novel’s passages have this poetry and resonance, often Biblical in scope.
Kim’s knowledge of Korean culture is woven through the scenes, as in the One Hundred Day Naming Ceremony for Najin’s baby brother, when a set of objects is arrayed before the boy to foretell his professional destiny. His mother has included a wooden cross; his father a bronze signet to represent his own dedication to scholarship, painting, and calligraphy; the baby’s choice, whatever he grasps, will be his future.
Kim creates an effective architecture of three parts including letters Najin receives, first when she becomes an inside observer of Korea’s Imperial Court and then later as she learns of her arranged marriage–“A good Christian with modern thinking,” her future husband is described to her.
As she gains the education and knowledge she craves, Najin learns independence and boldness from her country’s suffering under Japanese occupation.
Against the political background of the Japanese in Korea, Kim weaves a story of love, endurance, and survival.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter is one of three great novels of Korea published in the last year.
Lark and Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips, is an amazing book with the structure of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and set, like that novel, over a period four days. The year is 1959, and the novel deals with the repercussions of an atrocity during the early months of the Korean War. Like all Phillips’s work, it is lyrically beautiful.
The short novel The Ginseng Hunter, by Jeff Talarigo, is set in the present, at the turn of the twenty-first century along the Tumen River, which separates Northeast China and North Korea. The ginseng hunter of the title hears a tale of tragedy from a young North Korean prostitute, a story that takes the reader deep into the lives of North Koreans today. Although the author cannot name those who told him of their lives in North Korea, he and his family lived for almost fourteen years in Japan, and his understanding of the geography and people make for a powerful read.
These three novels offer fine prose, extraordinary stories, and the human faces and lives behind the history and politics of the Koreas. They give a sense of Korea’s proud history and desperate survival in the 20th century. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, especially, offers the reader a great love and understanding of the people–of what they have endured in the last one hundred years, of both what has been lost and what has survived.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim, Henry Holt, 2009
Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips, Knopf, 2009
The Ginseng Hunter, Jeff Talarigo, Nan A. Talese, 2008