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. Our main character is Najin Han, and we meet her 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 were to the culture, history, and people of the country.
This is the first novel from Eugenia Kim, and I can tell you that she is an author to watch, one I certainly hope continues to put out beautiful stories like this one. It’s 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. In fact, 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 made the tale more compelling was that it starts from the perspective of a five year old girl and follows approximately thirty years of her life, so you learn about the devastation of the country from a more innocent side and gradually ease into the politics behind everything. Najin is almost curious about the Japanese, doesn’t understand what they are doing to her country, and to me this kind of embodied the reasons behind why they were able to take over in the first place.
Najin is free spirited from the start, a trait that is quite frowned upon, especially in a woman. This aspect of her nature is both a bonus and hindrance throughout her life, and it was very frustrating at times to see how easy it was for blame to be placed on her when in reality, she is just trying to find her way.
This is definitely a society dominated by men, which lends towards women being oppressed and merely a piece of property to be married off in the best match possible. It was extremely satisfying to see that not only was Najin able to pursue some of her dreams, but at times be the savior of her family. She is able to overcome her father’s narrow expectations, a decade of being halfway across the world from her husband, and her brother’s lack of motivation, to truly become a woman of her own.
I was especially touched by Najin’s 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. She is a remarkable woman, one I imagine would have had a different future herself should she have been born in a later generation.
The book was very enjoyable, although I will admit that I wish it had continued on and we’d 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. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a heartwarming story, you won’t be disappointed.
Originally published at CurledUp.com Copyright 2010