This enchanting novel by Eugenia Kim is set in early twentieth century Korea and tells the life of Najin Han, the priveleged daughter of a calligrapher. Set over a thirty-year period, the novel shows both Najin’s progression from unruly daughter into a brave woman, who her father can be proud of.
From the outset, the traditional Korean values and the increasingly intrusive Japanese presence become very apparent. We play witness to a series of terrifying events in Korea and subsequently empathise deeply with the Han family and various other characters whom we encounter, like Najin’s friend who falls in forbidden love with a Japanese doctor…
The way that Eugenia Kim writes is very pleasing as it reflects the gentile nature of Korean women and all of the prose is written as such and is very respectful. Thereare times throughout where Najin punishes herself for thinking certain things, which reinforces this idea of repression which recurs throughout the novel in various different ways.
Before reading the book, I wasn’t really aware of the problems in Korea/China/Japan but after reading this book (and the handy historical notes which accompany it) I know a little bit more about the world and the relations between the countries but without feeling preached at.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading something a little bit different. It is cleverly and brilliantly structured (in chronological order…for anyone who fears the disjointed narratives) and there are a number of twists and turns along the way which I definitely didn’t expect! As the book spans such a large period of history, we are able to watch Najin grow up and strive for her father’s respect, her chosen career and a marriage on her terms. Najin is a modern woman trapped in a traditional time and it is really interesting to follow her life as she never loses sight of her ambitions, whilst simultaneously doing everything she can to please her family.