Eugenia Kim’s sweeping debut, “The Calligrapher’s Daughter” (Henry Holt, $26), rises tall from a riveting scene that begs to be read and re-read — as does her entire novel about the painful change that Japanese occupation and modern ways bring to traditional, ritualistic Korea.
It is spring, 1924, Gaeseong in northern Korea. Calligrapher Han, an aristocratic scholar and artist, has arranged the marriage of his bright and headstrong 14-year-old daughter Najin, in keeping with traditional customs, but his wife, who was not consulted, opposes it.
“She’s still a child and not yours alone!” the wife cries, arguing that Najin is educated, intelligent and deserves better. When Han refuses to soften, his wife secretly sends Najin off to serve in the court of the fading Yi monarchy.
Han, furious at his disobedient wife, loses his upper-crust decorum and hits her twice, drawing blood, then breaks down in tears. With that pivotal scene, Kim expertly sets the stage of the larger story: the crumbling of Han’s centuries-old world; his wife, so traditionally polite that she refuses to show her teeth while eating, defies him to gain freedom and self-determination for a daughter; meantime, the Japanese are taking over ancestral properties and seeking to obliterate old-world Korean culture.
Through all the oppression, Najin (named after her mother’s birthplace) triumphs, learning refined manners in court, getting a teaching degree, returning home to marry a pastor. Yet her happiness is not assured. The couple part, her husband sails for America, the Hans are forced to move to the big city after losing their wealth, and World War II comes to haunt Najin.
Kim says the novel was inspired by her own mother’s life in Korea. Kim’s prose is elegant, her eye compassionate, and her ability to effortlessly compress events over 30 years into a moving novel is admirable. But her greatest triumphs are her carefully calibrated and brave characters, who haunt you long after the novel is done.