Najin Han is born in Korea just as it becomes a colony of Japan in 1910 and grows up in a country that is mourning the loss of its freedom and age-old traditions. Her father clings on to traditional views and customs in the face of rapid change and discrimination, making it hard for Najin to gain an education and employment. As the rule of Japan becomes more oppressive and opportunities for Koreans narrow, Najin must do all she can to support her family and balance her traditional upbringing with Japanese rule and the reality of modern Korea.
The Calligrapher's Daughter is a leisurely read packed full of lovely description. From the winter snow to the rustle of clothes to the smell of cooking, I felt as though Kim had transported me back in time and half way around the world to Korea. Unlike a lot of historical fiction, she used showing rather than telling as her main literary device. Despite not being explicitly told that 'yangban' meant a respected class of people in former Korea, it was easy to guess this through the use of the word. And there was a lot of this trust in the reader to work things out for themselves, which I really liked as it made me feel like an observer to the story, rather than the main reason the story is being told.
Najin was a likeable main character and it was hard as a modern woman not to sympathise with her struggles against her father's traditional views. Najin goes through hardships and good times during the course of the novel and I definitely empathised with her when things were rough. A lot of the story is apparently based on the story of Eugenia Kim's family, which added a bit of weight to the story and my reaction to it.
I do think there were some pacing issues with this novel. It starts with a very slow, leisurely pace which I personally enjoyed as it was like being immersed in Korea at the time and I love the little details in historical fiction. This slow pace continues through most of the book. By the last third, I was used the characters spending time thinking about the events of the novel when suddenly things sped up. I don't know if Kim wanted to finish the book quickly, or convey some kind of urgency, but I found the change in pace and the swiftness of the ending unsettling when compared with the rest of the novel. I still very much enjoyed it, but I felt a bit unsettled after the end.
Verdict: Intriguing novel set in Korea during Japanese rule; a portrait of a country struggling to balance traditional beliefs with a more modern world.
First Published: 2009
Score: 4 out of 5