Cannonball Read #34: The Calligrapher’s Daughter04/01/2010
A wonderful antidote to the raw and thrilling John Dies at the End, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is elegant, artful, and beautifully written. Author Eugenia Kim follows the titular Najin Han through thirty years of upheaval and turmoil in turn of the 20th century Korea.
Najin is indeed the daughter of a calligrapher – a prominent scholar named Han. A noble and talented man, Han, along with his educated and elegant wife, Haejung, tries to stay true to the ways of the ancestors while Korea is in turmoil around them. Najin was born at the time of Korea’s annexation by Japan, and The Calligrapher’s Daughter follows not only Najin’s story, but Korea’s story up to and through World War II.
I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.
Kim opens her novel with this line, and we find that Najin does have no formal name, because the 100th day of her life – normally the day of a baby’s naming ceremony – came during the invasion. The misunderstanding of a missionary causes “Najin,” her mother’s hometown, to become our protagonists name. The search of her family’s home by the Japanese police in the initial pages of her story foreshadows the government’s heavy hand that the family will have to live under.
Najin succeeds under difficult times culturally and politically, and manages to become an educated woman, holding positions in education and medicine. She finds a man that she believes can support her in her modern way of thinking about religion and her role in a family, but after only one day of marriage, they are separated and remain so for years.
Though Calligrapher’s Daughter refers to Najin’s father, it is her relationship with her mother that gives us some of the most beautiful moments in the novel. Late in the novel, Najin is imprisoned for her correspondence with her husband, and is delivered a package from her mother containing food with hidden scripture written on rice paper:
Stand in your faith
with the strength of a soldier.
There you’ll find love.
With tears for my mother’s wisdom, steadfastness and love, I crujpled the scripture in my mouth and chewed thoroughly. I repacked the empty bowl in the clother, knotting it just the way I knew my mother had knotted it. I felt our fingers had touched, and I was full.
Letters to Najin are interspersed through the novel as an effective way to fill in the pieces of the story’s timeline from others’ perspectives. The characters of Najin’s brother, aunt, husband, and town members are also well drawn. The story of Korea during this time is one that I had not really known well and was intriguing. I could really feel what the characters were going through – the privation, the uncertainty, the pride in the old ways. I highly recommend this novel for its realism and storytelling. It was a joy to read.