Saturday, July 14, 2012

the calligrapher's daughter: review

This was an interesting week in which to read this book: my mom & dad came to visit; we all went to see Brave, a movie that is largely about the relationship between a daughter and her mom; and in the quiet moments I finished reading this gentle, deep account of a Korean girl / daughter / sister / wife / friend whose 30 year narrative holds lessons for all of us, particularly in her strong relationship with her mother and the gentle way her mother trains her to be herself while honouring her family. 

I hardly know where to start in reviewing The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim. Han Najin, the titled daughter, lives in a world that couldn't be more foreign to me - Korea at a time of incredibly rapid change - from the Japanese invasion (days after which Najin is born) to the end of the Pacific war of World War 2. Japan has invaded, the impact of the invasion grows throughout the story, and the fate of Han Najin's family is intricately tied to the fate of their country. There is corruption, disruption, and hints at what will follow even after liberation at the end of World War 2. But this is not a political story. 

Click to view on Amazon
Korea in the early 20th century is still a largely Confucian society. Confucianism informs social relations and behaviour, it determines class, it shapes family life in macro and micro matters. And while Confucianism and its loss of influence are a consistent theme, so is the rapid and organic spread of Christianity in Korea. According to a note at the end of the novel, Korea is the only country in which Christianity was accepted widely without the influence of a central church and major incursions of foreign missionaries. Najin is raised Christian by a mother of strong Christian belief and a father who tries to merge the forms of Christianity with the forms of Confucianism to the best of his abilities. Faith, belief, and the expressions of religion - Christian faith in particular later in the story, is a major and important theme. But this is not a religious story.

Han Najin is foreign - a mostly traditional Korean woman with a long black braid, clad in Hanbok, shod in slippers, deferential. She lives in a culture in which her existence is, almost entirely, only worthwhile in the service to her father, her brother or her husband. And yet, she is as familiar as a smile, a pout and a dream. She strives to be different than her mother and father, thinking them hopelessly old-fashioned, as we all do, and comes to understand their beliefs and choices and lives, as we all do. She falls in love, though not through a route we might recognize. She yearns. She falters in her faith. And, in the end, she is restored to herself. 

Initially I wasn't sure I was enjoying this book. The Han family's life was so ordered and calm - so Confucian - that I had to keep myself moving forward. I don't like to quit on a book, and I was sure that it would get more exciting. I don't know that exciting is the right word for what happens in the story. The 30-year span of the novel makes for an increasingly full plot.

But what really pulled me forward through the slow spots was how much the author Kim made me care about these people. About Najin certainly, but also about her parents, her husband, her friends. About the royal family, ousted before the story begins. About Korea and what it endured. About the tragic loss of culture that so often accompanies the relentless march of progress. It mattered to me that Han Najin was happy. But it also mattered to me that her father could practice his traditional arts. And that her mother could practice her deep Christian faith.

The Calligrapher's Daughter is a late-blooming page turner - not because of high drama and shocking twists, but because the themes and the people become so important. And yet, throughout the entire elegant story, after each reading I was left at peace.

Reading for me is a calming, insular, meditative activity. It's how I escape, and how I self-soothe. Eugenia Kim honoured that time for me, and gave me something to read that calmed and lead me through a meditation that restores. And for that I am so grateful. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...