Eugenia Kim’s novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter is based on her mother’s experiences during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s through World War II. The novel covers a lot of historical ground as Korea underwent drastic social and economic changes during that time period and the main character Najin, based on Kim’s mother, suffers these changes through her family’s changes in status. The concept and setting are interesting and the story is good, but I thought the novel suffered from poor pacing, lack of description, a few weird point of view problems and bland diction.
I had a hard time getting into this book because it was very slow. I felt like I spent a lot of time waiting for things to happen, which is odd since so much actually was happening in Korea at the time. Perhaps the author was trying to convey the slow drift of life in the old ways with this choice, but I wish she could have picked up the pace a bit.
If she wanted to keep the novel moving slowly as a style choice, I think Kim could have improved the writing with more physical description. I lived in Korea for two years so I was looking forward to descriptions of the country, the architecture, the dress – all of which are beautiful and distinctive, and all of which were, for the most part, lacking in this book. I wanted to know what Pyongyang looked like compared to Seoul. I wanted to be reminded how Korea looks in the spring or how an everyday hanbok looks compared to the ones worn by the princess at court. I wanted to read about the changes in Seoul from when Najin was a playmate of the princess at court to when she lived there in poverty during the war. There were a few good descriptors, such as the pollen in Seoul or the way Najin’s father walked with his hands behind his back that reminded me of things I saw when I lived there, but I wish there had been more.
Although the book is mostly told from Najin’s point of view, at odd times the author inserted a chapter from her father’s perspective and once from her brother’s perspective. That was jarring because there was no warning, and I had to go back and re-read a paragraph or two once I realized the shift. Really, those POV changes didn’t advance the plot, and the information could have been relayed through Najin’s eyes instead. Shifting POV is rough, and I think if you’re going to do it you need to be all in, and make a substantial part of the book told from the different perspectives, and also find a way to alert your reader of the change.
Finally, I thought the writing was a little bland. Some of Kim’s images were excellent, like the fish in water description of how women should effortlessly flow around obstacles, but I found myself wishing she would have given us more of a sense of Korea with her words. Some authors convey a sense of place through unusual phrases or descriptions taken from translated idioms, or through cadence that evokes a certain quality of place – this is hard to pin down and, I suspect, even more difficult to achieve especially for a first time novelist, so I don’t mean to criticize Kim too harshly on this point. To me, the Korean language has a kind of singing quality to it, and I wished I would have felt more of that come through in the writing.
All of that aside, the story in The Calligrapher’s Daughter is good, and I think Kim may develop more of a distinctive style in future books so I will probably check out any further books she writes. If you are interested in Korean history, want to know more about the country, or like stories about societies in the midst of era shifts, and are willing to push past the slow pace, I’d recommend this book.
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