The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim I do not recommend this book. If I ask myself what I think of it, my response is: Yeah well, it was OK. I have no enthusiasm. I have no urge to try and convince you to pick it up. You can learn a bit from the book. There are some interesting facts about Korean history, but you can just as well skim Wikipedia. A book of historical fiction is supposed to make history come alive. The book doesn’t do that.

If you choose to read this book you must be aware that the religious content is a very central theme. That Christians did missionary work in Korea is a part of the historical content, but it goes beyond that. On almost every page the characters beseech God for help. The text is peppered with:

Amen! The mother rarely opens her mouth except to say this. Of course I am exaggerating, but not much.

My voice broke and I wept while mother held my hand and murmured, “Praise God, praise God.” (page 311)

We must trust God. (page 312)

God’s will is not comprehensible at times. We are given the greatest gift of faith. (page 312)

And taste this:

I’m grateful, Abbuh-min, and ashamed. Forgive your worthless daughter. (page 313)

This is a family steered by deep Confucian principles. The daughter’s self-abasement is perhaps an accurate portrayal of traditional beliefs, but it is noteworthy that her brother, the honored son of the family does not choose to show respect to his father. He is the first to throw off the yoke of tradition but grabs all privileges afforded him. Each character is a simplified personification of a type. The mother is religious. The son is the spoiled, naughty brat while the daughter is struggling to find faith and be the wonderful wife, daughter and sister. I find her too good to be true. There is no depth to the characters.

This is supposed to be based on the true events of the author’s mother, but there is no author’s note that clarifies what is fact and what is fiction. Given then that this is a book of fiction the author could have better used her imagination to create characters and a plot that grips the reader. There is a chapter of disparate letters dispassionately informing the reader of diverse events. The letters lack portions. These are filled in with black lines. No explanation is given. There is an historical note at the end of the book covering the history of Korea, summarized in a whopping three pages. There is also a glossary of Korean terms.

The content is overly religious. There is no interesting discussion of religious beliefs. The character portrayals are either black or white. The writing is simplistic, and the history covered feels as though it is meant for young adults. Oh, and I laughed only once, when I read the line:
“I closed my eyes, nearly laughing out loud at the sheer joy and shock of him, and at my mounting impatience for him to quit praying so we could talk!” (page 359) I found that quite apt!

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Thoughts after 140 pages: Is this a YA book? At least the first part is focused upon questions concerning the path toward adulthood and boyfriends and schoolwork. Heck, some YA books do work for me.

There is little depth to the characters. You do not intimately relate to their problems. This is for two reasons. The family, particularly the father, follows the traditional thoughts and customs of the aristocrat class. One simply does not reveal one's intimate thoughts. It is not done! To write the book differently, to reveal inner thoughts, to have the characters behave expressively would be inaccurate. Secondly, when trouble hits this family, if they don't fall back on traditions, then they turn to religious beliefs for guidance. The main character, Najin, prays:

"Father God", I began with, with hands clasped tightly to my chest, "I promise to be more ladylike and less willful and independent. I promise to study hard and learn all that I can, if you let Sunsaeng-min marry again and bring her father home. Amen. And make her brother an angel. And let her know that somehow. Amen." (page 91)

This may appeal more to others, and I admit it is important to acknowledge the role Christianity played at this time in Korea. The basis for this novel are the true life experiences of the author's mother.

The writing is not exceptional.

Why do I continue? Because the history of Korea is woven into the story. The Emperor is floundering....and then poisoned. The Japanese are encroaching. Najin is born in 1910. She is not even given a name; Najin, China, is where her mother is from and she is the daughter of the woman from Najin! The story will continue through WW2. That is the time focus. Traditional Korean customs, particularly those of the upper-class are clearly portrayed, although it does feels like the book is written to teach history to a child. The mother / daughter relationship is touching.