The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim
The Calligrapher's Daughter is at once the story of the titular character and the story of a nation. Taking place between 1915 and 1945, the novel chronicles the end of the Joseon dynasty and Japan's occupation of Korea.
Kim focuses on this tumultuous period addressing issues of nationalism and the tension between traditionalism and modernity both in the national arena and as they play out on a smaller scale within the protagonist's family.
While the novel has a compelling opening line--"I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear"--I had to start The Calligrapher's Daughter on a couple of different occasions before I was able to get into it. Once I became invested in the protagonist and her story it wasn't hard to keep going, but it took me a while to get to that point.
Reading The Calligrapher's Daughter I realized just how little I know of Korean history (now I understand the profusion of Korean Methodist churches in the US). As a window into an unknown country and culture The Calligrapher's Daughter was fascinating. I'm not sure, though, whether I can say that I liked the novel. Much of what happens during the course of its story is heart-breaking, but I didn't have a problem with that. There were other things that I found problematic. At times I had difficulty understanding the characters' motivations (for example why on earth would the protagonist's husband go abroad without her when her visa was denied?). I also found the reunion at the novel's end unrealistic. Yes, I realize that it could be explained by a happy accident of fate, but it read much more like a plot device.
All that being said, I think my mom will really like The Calligrapher's Daughter so I plan to give it to her next time I see her.
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir
Innocent Traitor, the first novel written by historian Alison Weir, chronicles the life of Lady Jane Grey from birth to death. While Jane is the protagonist, Innocent Traitor is narrated in turns by a number of different individuals including Jane's parents, her governess, Katherine Parr (Henry VIII's last wife), Mary I, and John Dudley.
Throughout the novel Jane is painted as a profoundly sympathetic character whose only guilt was in the accident of her birth. Weir brings the Tudor period alive, deftly portraying all the tensions of the period and the motivations of the many players involved in the rise and fall of Queen Jane.
As I was reading the final chapters of the novel I had a strange sense that I'd read it before. I'm assuming that's because I must have read some other novel in which the protagonist was executed under similar circumstances (or maybe I've even read another account of Jane Grey that isn't coming to mind).