The Calligrapher's Daughter is a beautiful, touching, and at-times tragic story of a woman and her family growing up in Korea during the Japanese occupation. We meet Najin Han at about the age of five - before she even has a name, in fact - in the year 1915. Through her story, we learn about the customs of Korea and how devastating the Japanese occupation was to the culture, history, and people of the country.
This is the first novel from Eugenia Kim, and she is an author to watch, one who I certainly hope continues to put out beautiful stories like this one. Itís apparent, in a good way, that the author has both done a lot of research and drawn on personal experience to create the story of Najin. I found the story to be so honest that I genuinely forgot it was a novel, especially when the author draws on actual correspondence from the time period and we see sections that have been redacted.
I didn't know anything about the history of Korea going into this novel, and I liked having a completely blank slate for the story to begin on. What makes the tale more compelling is that it starts from the perspective of a five-year-old girl and follows approximately thirty years of her life Ė Kim comes at the devastation of the country from a more innocent side and gradually eases into the politics behind everything. Najin is almost curious about the Japanese, doesnít understand what they are doing to her country; this seems to embody the reasons as to why they were able to take over in the first place.
Najin is free-spirited from the start, a trait quite frowned upon, especially in a woman. This aspect of her nature is both a bonus and hindrance throughout her life, and itís frustrating to see how easy it is for blame to be placed on her when she is simply trying to find her way.
This is definitely a society dominated by men, which lends toward women being oppressed, each one merely a piece of property to be married off in the best match possible. That makes it extremely satisfying to see that not only does Najin pursue some of her dreams, but is also at times he savior of her family. She overcomes her fatherís narrow expectations, a decade of being halfway across the world from her husband, and her brotherís lack of motivation, all on the path to truly becoming a woman of her own.
Especially touching is Najinís mother, a woman torn between the customs of her country and role as a wife, yet someone who can see how truly extraordinary her daughter is and wants to provide her with as many opportunities as possible. One imagines that this remarkable woman would have had a different future herself had she been born in a later generation.
Although The Calligrapher's Daughter is enjoyable, I will admit to wishing it had continued on and we had gotten to see more of the life Najin has with her family when the Japanese are finally defeated at the end of World War I and head back to their own country. We are blessed to have real-life versions of Najin in history, women who paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy in modern life. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a heartwarming story.