Select one of the keywords
The Calligrapher's Daughter    by Eugenia Kim order for
Calligrapher's Daughter
by Eugenia Kim
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Eugenia Kim's The Calligrapher's Daughter tells the story (from 1915 to 1945) of a spirited, intelligent and sensitive young aristocrat in Korea, who is torn between the pressure to conform to her very conservative father's views of what's suitable for her, and her own ambitions for education and a career.

As a child, our heroine wonders why her father Han (a talented calligrapher) has never named her. The family (who are Methodist) live in a time when the Japanese occupy their country and take repressive measures to control the population. His wealth and reputation allow Han to bribe officials to protect his household from the worst of the excesses, even though he is himself involved in resistance to the invaders.

A missionary's misunderstanding of what's said to her results in the girl being called Najin. Aged nine, she helps her mother secretly sew forbidden flags for a major national demonstration in Seoul. It doesn't end well. Najin helps look after her small brother Ilsun, and is saddened by her favorite teacher's suicide (after a rape). In 1924, when she is fourteen, Han arranges Najin's marriage.

However, Najin's mother wants more for her daughter, and defies her husband. A relative, widow of the murdered prime minister, is still close to what remains of the court, and Najin is summoned by her aunt Imo to serve in the palace. She's taught court etiquette and becomes the favored companion of young princess Deokhye. When the emperor dies, the remaining members of the royal family are taken to Tokyo and Najin returns home to her loving mother and disapproving father.

Through the missionaries, Najin is able to pay for college and earns a degree in childhood education and nursing. Another marriage is proposed (through an old friend), to Calvin Cho, 'the second son of a famous minister.' When they meet, 'the thoughtfulness from our conversation lingered like the languid scent of honeysuckle.' They wed, planning to travel to the United States and for Najin to attend medical school. But her exit visa is refused by the Japanese.

After a miserable time with her new in-laws in a one-room hovel, she returns home yet again. With world war imminent, Calvin's letters to Najin cause suspicion and result in her family's ejection from their home. They move to Seoul, to a refuge offered by aunt Imo. And it's there, after many trials and tribulations that a chance meeting between Najin and an American soldier becomes the key to her reunion with Calvin in 1945.

What's to be learned from it all? Najin muses on the ways all the people close to her 'held on to hope' and realizes 'it wasn't the answers I was seeking all those years that mattered as much as the act of seeking itself.' The Calligrapher's Daughter is a thoroughly engrossing historical, set in a country and era familiar to few Westerners and starring an indomitable, intelligent young Korean woman, who is yet a product of her culture and times. I highly recommend this novel.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Historical books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews