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[242] The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim


“You must always think first of your family, your father, and put your own thoughts and desires last. We live in hard times hat we pray will get better. Hard times. You must be careful and obey your parents in all things. Agreed? [10]

Nicknamed Najin when she was eight, the heroine in The Calligrapher’s Daughter does not have an official name. As a child, she is expected to uphold a long tradition of upper-class propriety. She is to practice rituals and traditions merely to preserve their existence. Petrified at her mother’s pain during childbirth, she aspires to be an obstetrician. Her father harbors a secret disappointment that she is born a girl, who is not to continue the family’s name. As the Japanese steadily gain control of Korea in mid 1910s, her stern father, who is opposed to the Japanese’s undermining of traditional Korean values, seeks to marry her into an aristocratic family.

I felt suddenly and irrationally responsible. I did not love my father enough, did not respect him or honor him enough, was not well behaved enough. [62]

But Najin’s mother outstrips her husband’s plan. She defies the generations of obedient wives and sends Najin to serve in the king’s court, right before the Korean emperor is dethroned. As much as Kim wants to capture the changing life of a nation under a tough time through the story of a single life that faces tough choices between obligation to family and individual choices, the novel only dabbles at the historical details of life in Korea under Japanese occupation. Other than passing mention of the calligrapher’s brief arrest, and the organization for independence protest, history is dashed over throughout the novel.

Over time, we learned that the national demonstration had prompted unprecedented brutality from the military and police. Months later I heard whispered reports at church about massacre and carnage: all the men in one village burned alive in a chapel, women and girls humiliated… [69]

Kim attempts to do justice of the suppressing voice of women during that historical period. While Najin’s father clings to what he knows best to pave her life, Najin, whose life begins at the dawn of the Japanese occupation, seeks to find freedom from family, traditions, and later religion. While the book does provide a foundation to understanding how Christianity and Neo-Confucianism exist in harmony, the hole Christian motif is contrived and runs a bit too rampant. What baffles me the most is the the novel’s being incapable of picking up the speed. As Najin’s husband for one day departs for America to study and leaves her behind, which makes her question her own loyalty and devotion to him as supposed to her desire to leave the country, the novel begins to stall again. What is often promised is not delivered. One might expect the clash between Japanese and Korean values, the suspicious charges on espionage as World War II escalates, and a seemingly failed marriage would give a spellbound story, but the languorous pace has taken a toll on the pleasure of reading.

375 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]


8 Responses

  1. Hmmm…I have a hard time with books that are slow and stall out here and there. The premise had promise, so that is disappointing. Great review, though, Matt!

  2. I’m sorry this novel stalls- there’s nothing more frustrating than a book that doesn’t pace itself well.

  3. That is so not what I wanted to hear!!!! I have a hard time with slow books, usually I just give up and move on to something else!!

  4. Sandy:
    I thought the book has beautiful elements, but lacks in cohesion. The pace is so slow that when things happen they are dashed over.

  5. The Literary Omnivore:
    Maybe it’s the writing style (reserved and distant, and also pedestrian) makes it a less interesting read.

  6. Staci:
    Over all it’s not a bad book, and it has pretty favorable reviews on Amazon. 🙂

  7. […] [242] The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim […]

  8. I love the premise, but sometimes a slow moving plot can really kill the enjoyment of a story. I’ll get to this eventually,but I think I’ll need to be in the right mood!

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