four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Eugenia Kim
user_rating: 
0

A-The Calligraphers DaughterEugenia Kim is the author of various short stories and anthologies, including Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is her first novel.

The Story: Najin Han, a headstrong young woman born in 1910 to an aristocratic Korean family, feels stifled within her father’s strict, traditional household. Her father, Han, a renowned artist and scholar, is also stifled, but his repression comes from the occupying Japanese forces that are systematically obliterating Korea’s centuries-old customs and traditions. When Han announces that 14-year-old Najin is to be married, her mother, in a rare act of defiance, whisks her away to Seoul to be a companion in the royal household. Spanning 30 years, the novel follows Najin as she struggles with duty, honor, and life under violent occupation.
Henry Holt. 386 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780805089127

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Fans of Lisa See’s or Amy Tan’s novels should eagerly embrace Najin, and The Calligrapher’s Daughter bids fair to become a staple of book clubs. … Najin herself wins the sympathy of modern readers without feeling like an anachronism plunked down among historical wallpaper—a tricky balance for any writer." Yvonne Zip

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s gripping and often unpredictable. … Kim creates a strong, sweet bond between mother and daughter that is maintained throughout the novel." Anne Morris

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Kim’s prose is elegant, her eye compassionate, and her ability to effortlessly compress events over 30 years into a moving novel is admirable. But her greatest triumphs are her carefully calibrated and brave characters, who haunt you long after the novel is done." Geeta Sharma Jensen

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he sweep of fate that destroys Najin’s hopes injects tragic intensity into the story. … The ending of the book is somewhat rushed, as Kim tries to encapsulate events in the immediate postwar period, but overall this is a satisfying excursion into empathetically rendered lives." Sybil Steinberg

Critical Summary

Inspired by the life of Kim’s mother, The Calligrapher’s Daughter covers a relatively unknown chapter (to Western eyes) in world history. Critics found Japanese-occupied Korea an intriguing setting that serves to distinguish Kim’s work from an abundance of Asian mother-daughter novels, and Najin’s conflict with her traditional father skillfully mirrors Korea’s bitter struggle with occupying forces. Although several reviewers noted an abrupt ending and occasional slow passages, they also lauded Kim’s novel as elegant and assured. Overall, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a lovely work from a talented new voice in historical fiction.