Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The Calligrapher’s Daughter
375 pages of pure awesomeness
From the website:
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.
In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.
Why I loved this book:
For me, this is historical fiction at its best. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is full of historical and cultural details, and the author does a fantastic job of bringing both Korea and her characters to life. This is a passage from late in the book, during WWII. It shows both the effects of the war, and offers a brief glimpse of traditional ways:
”I wrapped my skirt in sand-colored apron and squatted, tilling with a bamboo hand-hoe. When the home inspectors began collecting metal goods, garden tools were among the first items to go. I was grateful for the childhood years spent outside with Byungjo, watching his able hands fashion tools from bamboo, sticks and hemp rope, Mother and I planted cabbage, cucumber and squash. The warm wind smelled green and soft, but the earth was still frozen in places where the winter clouds had lingered. I broke up those clumps as if beating them into submitting to spring.” - page 335
Admittedly, this may not have been the best excerpt, but there was just something about the detail of the bamboo hoe that struck me. It’s that attention to detail that makes this such an exceptional book.
Another reason I love this book is for the characters, especially Najin. Kim created a strong protagonist in Najin, who we follow from childhood into adulthood. Throughout the story, Najin is often torn between duty and desire. Duty includes her role as the traditional, subservient daughter who is supposed to serve the men in the family. Her desires include education, work and choosing her own husband. As Najin struggles between duty and desire we learn about both traditional Korean culture and the changes the country (and the culture) undergoes in the early 1900s. Kim shows us Korea…its beauty, its struggles and its people.
Last night on Twitter I asked if anyone had any questions about the book. Ali asked, “Calligrapher doesn't seem like a high profile job. Is calligraphy important to the plot?”
This is an excellent question. It’s important to both the plot, and the meaning in the title. Najin’s father is a calligrapher, and was well-known for the scrolls and screens he created. Calligraphy was more than just fancy writing…the brush strokes were considered an art form and calligraphers were held in very high regard. In the book, Najin’s father’s screens are displayed in royal palaces. Furthermore, the Joseon Dynasty of Korea and Confucianism emphasized the ideal of the scholar gentleman, and Najin’s father epitomizes this ideal through both his actions and his calligraphy. He is a member of the privileged yangban class…he does not work, rather he studies and creates. He is also resistant to change, mostly because it is being forced upon him by the Japanese invaders. So the calligraphy in the title is representative of the old ways, and also the social class that the family belonged to. And Najin’s little brother also becomes a calligrapher, so calligraphy reappears later in the story and again has some importance to the plot.
To continue on about the title, in Korean culture it was rude to call someone by their given name. You could be the daughter of the woman from Nah-jing, or the calligrapher’s daughter, but not just Najin. Actually, Najin wasn’t even her real name:
“I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” - first sentence
Najin, with her ambitions, represents, to some extent, the changes Korea faces. Her lack of a name plays into this throughout the novel. However, Najin also has a keen understanding of tradition. She may rail against it at times, but she still strives to be a dutiful daughter, the calligrapher’s daughter. As you can see, this is a deceptively simple title. And as you read the book, you realize that there are many meanings and layers to both the title and the person.
I’m really hoping people fall in love with this book like I have. It’s a great story, and creates an incredible sense of place. It’s also the perfect example of what historical fiction can be…a story so good you don’t realize you’re reading about history. :-) So even if you’re resistant to the genre of historical fiction I’d urge you to try this one.