(Picture taken from Macmillan web site)
I picked this book up at Popular bookstore because I was attracted by the beautiful cover. Later I learnt that the writer's mother drew the picture. Although a work of fiction, the novel draws heavily on the author's own family history and anecdotes, so, at times, I felt like I was reading a semi-autobiography.
The story starts in 1915, during the sunset of Korea's last dynasty and spans a turbulent thirty years of Japanese occupation and Second World War. Najin Han the young girl wishes to be educated, her father is old-fashioned and firmly opposes the notion. Fortunately her mother is progressive and she helps Najin to eventually achieve her aims. Najin Han then falls in love, marries and the couple make plans to start a new life in in America. One day before she was to sail, the Japanese government denies her a passport and she is separated from her husband for nearly twenty years.
When I read the synopsis, I put the book back on the shelf. It sounded like another Joy Luck Club victimised- female weep-fest. Yet, the cover called out to me, it has such a dreamlike quality. I flipped a random page and read a few paragraphs. The prose is richly detailed yet clean, the style very engaging, so it passed my readibility test. Weeks passed before I picked it up again.
Once I started, I couldn't stop. It is a riveting novel. As we already know what is going to happen, it remains for the reader to simply immerse one's self in the characters' lives and their environment. It is not everyday we get a glimpse of life in an early 20th-century aristocratic Korean family, a staunchly Christian one at that; I was fascinated straightaway. There are so many other elements and themes which fleshes our the story so sumptuously: court intrigue, lots of bloodshed, much suffering and deprivations as the family declines in tandem during this most tumultous period of Korea's history, as well as romance, some chaste, some almost burlesque.
Being a novel written in the 21st century, we moved through the thirty odd years of the story at a fast clip. This is good too, because there are many highly dramatic events, some quite implausible if the plot sagged and we were given pause to question them. The cast of characters is not small, many drawn with empathy, but some are quite caricatured. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely and found myself thinking about it weeks later. Prior to this, I knew little about Korea's past; this novel provided for me, an intimate account of modern Korean history plus some insights into the country's culture and traditions.