By Ekta R. Garg
August 24, 2011
Rated: Bypass it
In her debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim shares elements of her mother’s life in a fictional story about a strong-willed woman determined to live her own life despite the expectations of culture, society, and even her own family.
In between the World Wars, as the citizens of an occupied Korea fight hard to hold on to their culture, a young woman fights to live her life according to her own will. As the daughter of a once-renowned calligrapher, Najin Han has a dream to become a doctor. Her father is determined to marry her off early on, but Najin resists. She wants to live life on her own terms. In her struggle to decide what to do in life, she feels the effects of the occupation by the Japanese. Her father is arrested more than once on false pretenses; her teacher’s fiancé is captured and murdered. And all attempts at protesting the presence of the Japanese are met with force.
Najin meets a potential suitor through her parents, and much to her chagrin she begins to like and eventually love him. The two agree to get married and Najin’s husband, Calvin, encourages her to follow him to the United States where she can pursue her passion and study medicine. The two marry, and after a single night as man and wife Najin bids Calvin goodbye and goes to apply for a visa.
Calvin leaves the country on the approved visa he’d received before the wedding, and the two young lovers believe Najin’s visa will be merely a formality in allowing them to meet again. Despite following all the right protocol, Najin’s application is denied indefinitely and thus begins a decade-long separation filled with longing, bewilderment, an increasingly aggressive Japanese force and, eventually, the abandonment of all hope.
Kim’s premise certainly sounds promising enough, and she sets out on this ambitious tale with gusto. Unfortunately she doesn’t quite have figured out in her own mind yet what story she wants to tell, and so we get a hodgepodge of historical fiction, a tale of two separated lovers, and a woman’s exploration of herself as a person as well as a woman. The book presents all of these parallel plots without fully satisfying the reader in any of them.
One of the most problematic items comes in the title itself. With a title alluding to a particular profession, Kim should have given readers more general information about the worth of the calligrapher and his work in Korea. This story is set at the cusp of the Second World War and at the start of Japan’s occupation of Korea. Because the general public usually doesn’t think much about Korea when WWII is discussed, a little more background about Mr. Han’s importance as well as the importance of Korea’s politics would have been helpful.
While we get some facts about Mr. Han and his work, author Kim also must deal with Najin and her place in her father’s life and heart. So several pages also are devoted to why he is so frustrated with his daughter’s unseemly independence, and Kim isn’t able to balance both. Her character’s thoughts are a little discordant and don’t seem to be of the same person.
Kim’s choice of story execution also proved distracting. She places the responsibility on the shoulders of Najin to tell the story in first person. Interspersed between Najin’s chapters come chapters with other characters as their focal points: Najin’s mother, her father, and her younger brother. These chapters do not balance Najin’s tale, however, because there are so few of them. Just as readers will begin to empathize with Najin’s mother, for example, Mrs. Han’s chapter ends and we don’t hear directly from her throughout the rest of the book. Despite her importance in Najin’s life—especially as a spiritual influence—Kim denies readers access to Mrs. Han’s thoughts, which is a shame because it would have been interesting to hear what she had say or think about certain pivotal plot points.
In addition to the chapters from the characters’ points of view, Kim has included a few chapters that are comprised solely of letters between the protagonists. Because readers don’t have letters from both sides in these chapters, we’re never exactly sure what has transpired at certain points and are left to make many presumptions.
Najin questions her Christian faith throughout the book, which could have provided readers with an interesting side plot. But author Kim doesn’t deal with Najin’s doubts consistently or evenly; at some points Najin seems to eschew her faith completely. At other times Najin seems to accept her faith, and while faith by no means is a simplistic thing Kim doesn’t convey its complexities well.
Kim also fails to provide details when details are needed. When Najin and Calvin are separated and Calvin continues his voyage to the U.S., Najin moves in with her in-laws as is expected of a dutiful Asian bride. Najin is shocked and dismayed to find out that her in-laws live in a home “Not larger than my mother’s kitchen” and describes it as a “one-room hovel—for that was my first impression.”
Nevertheless she moves in with her mother-in-law and father-in-law and begins to serve them and take care of them, as is expected of her. While in the beginning Kim goes out of her way to describe kindnesses shown by Calvin’s parents to Najin, eventually she concludes that section of the book with vague references to Calvin’s father questioning Najin’s fidelity. Najin states that she becomes a servant and that the entire situation makes her bitter towards Calvin’s parents, yet no specifics are given to explain exactly why.
The author may have refrained from providing too many details to spare her family; often when writers use personal or family stories for inspiration, they may choose to omit certain details to maintain dignity or confidentiality. Unfortunately if those omissions are not handled correctly, they become prominent aberrations in a story as is the case here.
Eugenia Kim made a worthy attempt to tell a compelling story, and I found the information about Korea fascinating. References to World War II immediately bring to mind the Holocaust, Hitler, Japan, the atomic bombs, and the revitalization of the U.S. economy. So having this book as an informal reference provides readers with new information. I fully respect Kim’s decision to tell a family story and appreciate her attempt. If Kim could have woven all of her story elements seamlessly, she would have produced a piece of fiction that could have prompted further study into other countries involved in this dramatic conflict. Unfortunately The Calligrapher’s Daughter presents readers with many frayed ends instead.
What the ratings mean:
Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection. It’s definitely worth it!
Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.
Bypass it–Free time is precious. Don’t spend it on this book!