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Eugenia Kim is the daughter of Korean immigrant parents who went to America shortly after the Pacific War. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and son, and The Calligrapher's Daughter is her first novel.
It is Korea in the early 1900's where we first meet Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher. She has a good home, servants, and a loving mother who just wants the best for her daughter. Her Father is traditional and confusing, and he longs for a son to have an heir. There are hints of the Japanese slowing growing bigger in Korea, enforcing their laws and customs onto the people of Korea and no one is completely sure what is going to happen.
Najin Han's father wishes her to marry into an aristocratic family, his old fashioned ways wanting to see her married off at only 14. Najin Han however has been doing well at the local girl's school and wishes to continue education; the thought of marriage terrifies her. However Najin's Mother defies her husband and sends Najin off to serve in the King's court where she becomes a companion to a young princess. Najin stays with her Aunt first who works at the court, and whilst she has been taught well by her Mother, she needs to learn more on how to behave when around the royal family. Unfortunately the King is assassinated; the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to an end. What does the future now hold for Najin Han? Will her Father forgive her? Can she overcome the changing ways of Korea and pursue an education? Can she truly ever have her own freedom?
I should point out that it may seem I have revealed quite a bit of the plot above, this is only what you find on the back cover of the book. The book itself spans thirty years from when Najin is a very young girl right up to adulthood and whilst it's not a very long book, it also doesn't move also too fast and I believe Eugenia Kim has set the pace of this book very well.
I really enjoyed the first part of this book reading as Najin Han grows up with her mother. They are obviously quite high class and have a wonderful sounding house. The book is mainly told from Najin Han's point of view, however on occasion it did differ to other people. Najin Han was such a loveable character to me, and as she grew older and got through the confusion of why the Japanese were taking over Korea, so did I. I had never heard of any of the history surrounding Japan's involvement with Korea and so this made for a very interesting read for me. It was interesting to read this from Najin Han's angle because as she was growing up, so much was changing and it was easy to see how at times this was frustrating and unsettling. She wanted an education, her Father simply wants to marry her off and it shows how the times were changing. I did often keep forgetting this was the early 1900's as it felt much older at times, Najin Han's father's views were so traditional and old fashioned, however this had to quickly change with the onset of the war and whilst at first I felt cold towards her father, in the later stages of the book I really warmed to him and felt a lot of sympathy for him.
The book moved at such a great pace, and I found it hard to put down. Eugenia Kim described situations in such a great manner, I could often smell the things she described, and the food they ate sounded rather appealing it had me craving rice balls! I loved how you got to see different perspectives in this book. Najin Han starts off as a child in a high class household, but she's then sent off and becomes part of the royal court. Later on she's also in very different situations and she adapts admirably and she goes through so much as she grows up. The writing style also differs slightly as she's growing up. In the early days a lot of things confuse her but she's always curious to find out more. For example she overhears words her Father says and wishes to find out what they mean, and she has an innocent outlook on the world. I felt so connected to Najin that I felt happy when she was, and upset when something bad happened. She was such a good character to connect to, and I missed reading about her when the book had finished.
One slightly disappointing thing for me was the ending, however this was probably because I was enjoying read this so much. It seemed to end quite suddenly for me and I really wanted to read more. I won't discuss the events around the ending, it's hard to explain without telling you the whole story, but I so badly wanted to carry on reading in the moment and I was disappointed to see it was finished!
This is such a brilliant first novel from Eugenia Kim and it was a nice surprise for me. I got it from the Amazon Vine programme and didn't know what to expect, and was pleased to discover such a brilliantly written book which I found hard to put down. If you enjoy reading books such as Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, or any other books set in East Asia involving read through a young woman's eyes then you will love this one, I certainly did.