The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson


It’s not easy to find novels about North Korea.

A Creative Writing professor from Stanford took a stab at it.  His name – Adam Johnson – is almost as American as apple pie a la mode but he did a pretty good job with The Orphan Master’s Son.

Johnson certainly was going for “epic” and his story sweeps a span of time and space beginning in the humble countryside that no one in North Korea ever sees and ending in the fantastical capital of Pyongyang.  There is love, there is hope, there’s blood and guts and glory, tragedy and horror.  There is also comedy – extremely dark comedy, of course.

Pak Jun Do is not an orphan, but he might as well be.  He works at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows under the management of a cruel and neglectful father.  Even his name Jun Do (“John Doe,” get it?) is a generic name taken from a roster of famous orphans.  The original Pak Jun Do was famed for loyalty.   His namesake, the hero of our story, lives up to it by being one of the most loyal and humble citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jun Do rises through the ranks pretty quickly.  From professional kidnapper to a spy intercepting radio transmissions aboard a fishing boat he seems to make the most out of life and is uncorrupted by wealth or rewards.  “You’re a guy who doesn’t need much,” one friend remarks, “but when it comes to other people, the sky’s the limit.”

Jun Do’s bold and brave exploits land him a diplomatic mission to Texas to visit a senator and reclaim from the Americans something valued they took from the Dear Leader himself.  The mission takes some unexpected turns, and by the end of it, Jun Do disappears.  When he re-emerges, he is no longer Jun Do.  He is Commander Ga.

This is when the novel gets crazy.  In a mostly good way.   The first part of the novel (“The Biography of Jun Do”) is a straightforward narrative, but the second part (“The Confessions of Commander Ga”) is a series of events and crescendos building on one another with more and more significant recurring themes about identity, truth, and purpose – you know, ultimate issues kind of stuff.  Jun Do, now Commander Ga, has allegedly killed and assumed the identity of one of North Korea’s most formidable men.  He takes his place in the city of Pyongyang and has a chance to be close to the woman he loves: Commander Ga’s widow, the famous actress Sun Moon.  He also has to save Sun Moon before she’s snatched away by the greedy and lustful Dear Leader himself.

(Yes, Kim Jong Il is an actual character in this book.  And he even has a few appropriately outrageous lines, such as the following:  “This is the gui-tar.  It’s used to perform American rural music…It’s also the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.”)

The story of Commander Ga in Part 2 is interwoven with two other points of view.  The first, rather brilliantly, is a loudspeaker blasting its own propagandized version of Commander Ga’s story, beginning each day like an old time radio show: “Citizens, gather round…!”  It’s an almost theatrical motif you could imagine in a musical production.   The second point of view follows a nameless interrogator who is holding important characters in prison.  His kind and truth-seeking character is a foil to the unspeakably cruel people he works with – particularly a woman named Q-Kee who is the embodiment of the ruthless North Korean version of the Gestapo.

It can get confusing if you don’t read carefully.  The interrogator’s story happens in a different sequence of time from the story of Commander Ga and the propagandized version, of course, may or may not have happened at all.  There are a lot of shadowy characters who pop up and may or may not come back later.   Commander Ga himself does not seem to be sure who he really is or what his destiny is, for that matter.  But the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end, and whatever isn’t is left tantalizingly to the imagination.  If some of the major philosophical themes weren’t so subtle this could be a stunning opera.  Or a Hollywood thriller.   But the subtle and shadowy stuff makes it good.

Perhaps one of the most brilliantly strange things that Johnson manages to do is have a running reference in the story to Casablanca – Commander Ga and the actress Sun Moon are compared to Rick and Elsa falling in love in a dangerous and unstable situation.  Jun Do alias Commander Ga certainly is the melancholic lone wolf type who is bound in the end to do the right thing.  His love for Sun Moon is a bit larger than life and never really explained – but perhaps it’s because she reminds him of his beautiful mother who was a singer kidnapped to Pyongyang.  The haunting loss of his mother is perhaps the only real reason why he is mad enough to stay in North Korea when all his comrades are trying to escape:

How to tell [him] that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here.  How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage…His mother wants to get urgent messages to him where she is, she wants to tell him why, she keeps repeating her name over and over, though he can’t quite make it out.  How to explain that in Seoul, he knows, the messages would stop.

Of course when Jun Do – Commander Ga – meets Sun Moon he has a new reason to stay in North Korea.  But there are still ghosts everywhere in this story.  Ghosts of characters who die and vanish.  Ghosts of characters you never meet, like Jun Do’s mother.  Even living characters can seem ghostly at times.   As the narrator says at one point, “It was easy to make somebody disappear in North Korea.  But making them reappear – who has that kind of magic?”

As bizarre and surreal as the story gets at times, I think Johnson’s “ghostly” vibe running through the Orphan Master’s Son is a fitting one.  As hard as one tries to get the facts on North Korea, to the outside world it remains one of the ghostliest of places.  We can only imagine it’s ghostly on the inside too.


7 Things to know about Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is not exactly a household name, but perhaps it should be. Wives and Daughters is a great novel and personally, more enjoyable than anything I’ve read by Charles Dickens who happens to be much more famous. (I know, let the flame wars begin). So, if like most people you know nothing about “Mrs. Gaskell,” or if you are interested in learning more, here are 7 fascinating details.

1. Her childhood was a bit like Cinderella’s.


That’s right – the start of her life, not so much the end. She was the last of a series of children who had nearly all died in infancy. Her poor mother died herself of exhaustion soon after giving birth to her. Her father, perhaps out of resentment or pained memory, kept his distance and married again. To make it worse, her stepmother wasn’t exactly warm, either.


Things took another tragic turn when Elizabeth was 18. Her brother John was lost at sea, and her father also passed away. Luckily, she had an optimistic disposition and a foundation of happy childhood memories with her aunt.  She would go on to marry a handsome but rather austere minister, Mr. William Gaskell – not quite Prince Charming. Things started looking up after that, but Elizabeth’s trials weren’t over yet.

2. She started writing novels because her son died.


Who says housewives can’t write novels? That’s “all” Elizabeth Gaskell was until her son William died at the mere age of 9 months. Gaskell already had 3 other children, but it was still a devastating blow. She fell into a bedridden state of depression.


Mr. Gaskell was a pretty cool husband, luckily. He knew that his wife was good at writing because she had already penned some short stories. He suggested she try writing a novel as a therapeutic way to distract herself. Mrs. Gaskell took her husband up on the challenge, and the result was Mary Barton – her first of many more writings to come.

3. She was good friends with Charlotte Brontë – and she even wrote her biography


Gaskell and Brontë are more opposite than alike at first glance. Gaskell was extroverted, sociable and matronly, while her more famous counterpart was introverted and single. In keeping with her sage and matronly nature, Gaskell gave some handy marriage advice to Brontë that led her to eventually wed her suitor, Arthur Bell Nicholls.


Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s father, Patrick Brontë also had a high opinion of Gaskell. After Charlotte’s death he approached Gaskell with the hope that she would write Charlotte’s biography. Gaskell did just that, and The Life of Charlotte Brontë is still read and widely studied by historians today. 100% transparent it is not, but it was a singular achievement at the time because it was a famous lady novelist writing about another famous lady novelist. It was also original in that Gaskell chose to focus on Brontë’s character and personal life over her works. The biography created some controversy at the time it debuted but perhaps that’s not surprising. It was about the life of Charlotte Brontë, after all.


4. She sometimes butted heads with Charles Dickens


Imagine trying to balance a work and personal relationship with the most formidable and popular writer in the nation. Somehow Gaskell managed to do so with Dickens, and she was a regular contributor to his magazine, Household Words. In fact, he was impressed enough with her storytelling skills to refer to her as, “My Dear Scheherazade.” Sounds like they were close.


That doesn’t mean their partnership was all peaches and cream, though. Apparently Dickens was always wanting to edit and change her writing to suit his own preferences and at one point in total frustration declared, “If I were Mr. G, oh heavens, how I would beat her!”


Hopefully Mr. G never got wind of that.


      5. She loved people.


In 1850 the Gaskells moved into a picturesque Neoclassical home at 84 Plymouth Grove.   In a surviving letter to a friend, a giddy Gaskell gushes about how excited she is to make the place her own.   It seems she did, because soon she had a steady stream of visitors.

84 Plymouth Grove today.  I would definitely invite people over if I lived here.


84 Plymouth became the sight for many parties and entertaining gatherings of luminaries and intellectual folk from near and far. In addition to Brontë and Dickens Gaskell also hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Norton, Charles Hallé and John Ruskin. And for what it’s worth, she was also friends with Florence Nightingale.

6. Her novels became famous because they tackled subjects other authors avoided.


Gaskell’s debut novel Mary Barton raised several eyebrows as the subject matter dealt up close and personal with illegitimate childbirth and the inner life of a working class woman. Her novel Ruth was explored the seduction and downfall of a poor seamstress. Such subject matter written from the point of view of a woman was rather new territory at the time and in spite of some critical voices, it helped her books to sell well indeed.


Gaskell was very much preoccupied with helping the poorer and lower classes, and made a point of making personal visits to such people often.  She worked hard to represent the situations of the lower classes in her works, and to recreate their different accents and dialects authentically.

7. She lived life to the fullest.


When Elizabeth Gaskell moved to 84 Plymouth Grove she took along a cow. I personally think that’s both awesome and inspiring – what animal would you move into your new home after you made it as a bestselling author?


If you just look at the bare facts of her history you can see Gaskell was a person who delighted in a lot of different things and had a lust for life. She made a point of traveling often, and usually independent of her husband. She ventured as far as France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. She was equally happy in London and absolutely loved to be out of the house and calling on friends.


She schemed and dreamed her way up to the end of her life. She became worn out and exhausted from all her writing and other obligations and still she somehow managed to secretly buy a house to surprise her family with(!) It was at this very same house, in fact, where she dropped dead of a heart attack right in the middle of a tea party with friends.


If that’s not the way to go then I’m not sure what is.


Elizabeth Gaskell created a pattern of life that many of us – especially aspiring writers – could take a few cues from. Her life was not spared from heartache, and in fact it helped to mold her talent. Yet she was incredibly positive and energetic and, if I may venture to say so, an encouraging example among so many more bleak and depressing ones in the world of esteemed literature.


Whether or not you like her stuff, you can’t deny that Elizabeth Gaskell made something of her life. And if you haven’t read any of her works yet, perhaps this quick insight into her life and character will motivate you to do just that.

High Court of Chicanery: A Review of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Is it a true classic or literary wiglomeration? The jury is still out.

After surviving Bleak House I am a Charles Dickens hold out.

You can’t say I didn’t try. Every day for two weeks, between 12:30 and 2 pm I watched over a room of sleeping 3-year-olds and with nothing else to pass the time I slogged my way through this 900-paged behemoth.

I tried to comprehend what was happening in the first chapter. I tried to understand what the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit was all about. But once it became apparent that such an understanding was beyond hope – and besides the point – I gave myself up to the numbing chaos of the evil, swirling London fog and the rest of the novel passed before my eyes like disjointed scenes in a phantasmagoria in which I drifted in and out of consciousness and sometimes what even felt like a coma.

And no, believe it or not, the book isn’t all that “bleak.” It’s just mind numbingly oblique.

Part of the obliquity is intentional, for sure. The main premise (if there is one) is an ongoing lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that no one quite understands. No, scratch that: no one remotely understands, and that is to include the reader.   We figure it involves an inheritance of money of some sort, because some of the characters are hopeful in benefitting from it, but for the most part, it’s a miserable mess. Dickens, true to his brutally repetitive fashion, slams us over the head in his opening chapter with the hopelessness and the futility of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and runs the London fog metaphor ragged.

Many fans of Bleak House point to the fact that in this novel Dickens’ outlook is darker and more cynical and mature, and he gives a scathing critique of the High Court of Chancery, the court of law at that time, and its hopelessly bureaucratic shortcomings.   He describes the members of the High Court of Chancery as, “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.”

Anyone who’s been through a divorce, a serious health problem or other unfortunate life event might well relate to the despair that comes with too much red tape. The message is important. But unfortunately, the most piercing and profound passages in Bleak House are tiny nuggets lodged in a mountain heap of descriptive rambling.

The narration is divided between a generic 3rd person observer and the 1st person observations of our heroine, Esther Summerson. The contrast between the darker 3rd person and Esther’s hopeful and guileless voice is no doubt intentional, and it makes for some admittedly interesting perspective. I found myself preferring Esther’s warmer and more personable voice – even though it is not as objective and omniscient – to the 3rd person vignettes concerned more with side plots.

Esther enters the story when her cruel godmother dies and she becomes the ward of Mr. Jarndyce and close friends to a pair of cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada are also connected to Mr. Jarndyce and they hope to benefit from the lawsuit’s outcome. In the meantime, Esther lives a blissfully contented life as housekeeper to kindly Mr. Jarndyce and never utters a peep of complaint or negativity- even after her face is ravaged by smallpox.

Through both Esther’s eyes and the narrator’s we inspect a parade of various characters ranging from sweet to pathetic to absolutely grotesque. True again to Dickens fashion the parade is a long one, and the names are cartoonish and full of hard consonants – from Mrs. Pardiggle to Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby. You could almost measure the “caricature” factor from the names themselves: note that “Esther Summerson” and “Allan Woodcourt” are much nicer and more believable names, as they are nicer and more normal people.

Then there are the ambiguous in-between types, like the dogged detective Mr. Bucket and the mysterious Lady Dedlock and the sad and shocking mystery that surrounds her. Long as Bleak House is, it does have a beginning, middle and end, and I must admit, a fair and fitting conclusion that will not have the reader in stitches.

The novel, overall though, was a fail for me personally. I will try to highlight the main reasons I hold this opinion.


  1. The characters in Bleak House are mainly caricatures. Caricatures work fine for bad people, but not for good people.


It is debatable whether it’s good or bad (or neutral) for characters to be caricatures. Obviously there is a case to be made, otherwise Dickens, who is the caricaturist of them all, wouldn’t still be so bloody popular.

In some cases, the over-the-top-ness of his characters manage to induce a giggle or two while still revealing a truth about human nature. This is in the best cases. A good example would be Harold Skimpole, the bafflingly irresponsible and good-naturedly selfish “eternal child.” Harold is so out of touch with reality and all things normal and adult that he doesn’t pay his bills because he thinks money is silly. However, he has no objection to other people giving him money, either as a bribe or bail, and uses such absurd logic to do so that he actually surpasses hypocrisy to the point of being straight-up loony. The crusty detective Bucket calls him like he sees them:

“Whenever a person proclaims to you, ‘In world matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”

Unsurprisingly, Skimpole reveals his true colors in the end by lashing out at Mr. Jarndyce and calling him “selfish,” when in fact Mr. Jarndyce is quite the opposite and simply doesn’t cater to Skimpole’s bizarre sense of entitlement. Pretty sure we’ve all met a Skimpole or two in our lives who drove us almost as crazy.

Two other good examples of extreme negative caricatures are the pathetic parental figures, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Turveydrop affects generosity to his son Prince for “allowing” him to marry Caddy Jellyby when in reality he is a shameless sponge who lives off his poor son’s hard work and really doesn’t have a right to stake a claim. It’s a shameful scenario in which the parent-child relationship is reverted, and one we have probably all seen but hope not to see again.

Mrs. Jellyby is even more wicked. The perfect picture of hypocrisy, she is absorbed in lofty charitable work in overseas Africa while ignoring the needs of her own children. She is cold, even emotionally negligent to her daughter Caddy, and Caddy’s friend Esther observes in Mrs. Jellyby “a serene contempt for our limited sphere of action.”

These are successful examples of extreme, even cartoonish and darkly humorous characters who exemplify the worst of human nature. Dickens has a bone to pick with such people and in Bleak House makes it abundantly clear that there is a special place in hell for anyone who oppresses children – especially their own.

The problem of caricature comes when we get to the good guys. You can laugh at someone who’s horrible, but a saint? They’re neither funny, believable or unique. Not unlike the famous sentence from Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” you could say that while bad people can be bad in different ways, a perfect person is going to be boring because he or she will have every imaginable virtue with no exception.

Take Mr. Jarndyce. For the first half of Bleak House I kept waiting, almost with dread, for something unfortunate to rear itself in the man. He is just too nice and too kind, generous, patient and benign, almost like Santa Claus or God himself. And then I finally realized that was the point and that that Mr. Jarndyce is a God-like archetype. When he makes an incredibly generous gesture near the end of the novel that surpasses all his prior generous gestures you sort of do a double take. “Really? Who is this guy?” Clearly something who belongs in a snuggly fairy tale world of black and white.

Mr. Jarndyce has got nothing on our flawless heroine, Esther Summerson, however. Dickens has a reputation for unrealistically perfect young female characters that grates even on his fans, and Esther is no exception.

Here is an example in which Esther is singing the praises of her eternally gracious guardian, Mr. Jarndyce:

My thought was how could I ever be busy enough, how could I ever be good enough, how in my little way could I ever hope to be forgetful enough of myself, devoted enough to him, and useful enough to others, to show him how I blessed and honored him.

 When she comes to live in her new home provided by Mr. Jarndyce after her wicked godmother dies, she declares, “If a good fairy had built the house for me with a wave of her wand, and I had been a princess and her favored god-child, I could not have been more considered in it.” How…sweet.

Esther rejoices in the kindness shown to her by others, and in return passes along such kindness down to the poorest and most unfortunate souls with unflagging zeal. She has no care or consideration for herself in even the most important matters.   She is so self-effacing as a narrator that she focuses all her attention onto other people and events that she almost becomes invisible at times.   Her humility is refreshing to a point, but believable or relatable it is not.

I would argue that good, exemplary characters do not need to be without flaw in order to be such. It is insulting to a reader’s intelligence to think that they should be perfect if we are to emulate them in any way, but here it could be a difference in taste. And if Esther Summerson and Mr. Jarndyce had a taste, it would be that of bubblegum bonbons.


  1. Melodramatic vignettes with side characters get old fast


I have a serious confession to make. I actually scrolled through the Cliff Notes summary after finishing Bleak House because I just spaced too many of the scenes with the minor characters.

Normally I can focus. Normally I can at least attach a name to a person. But Bleak House has what feels like 137 characters and most of them are so outrageously weird and off-beat and so haphazardly slipped into the scene that if you blank out for just a moment or two, you might not even realize what’s going on. That London fog really must be potent.

When I try to recall the full cast of Bleak House, all I can recall mainly are snatches of lurid scenes and images: a dejected mother sitting at the fireside with a dead child in her arms, a drawn-out argument between two minor characters with goofy names ending in –iggle or – aggle or –uggle, a street urchin named Jo who is probably more important than I realize, a crazy old lady, a kid named Peepy who never seems to talk, and of course, Mr. Krook who spontaneously combusts and leaves gore all over his room. Some of this stuff is more central to the plot, but a lot of it is filler.

Cliff Notes was sage enough to point out that Bleak House was written before the age of TV and Internet, when such rambling side plot action would have been more entertaining than annoying. It sadly appears that I am too much a product of my time, although I do see how some readers might actually find the eccentricity enjoyable.


  1. The plot is flawed and the book is just too long. Sorry.


Sometimes it seems like Dickens had two ideas in his mind: one was a murder mystery, and the other a political rant. Ideally he should have tied them together, such that the murder and secret identity mystery were directly related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. With the build up of the sinister feeling around the lawsuit in the beginning of the novel you are really getting ready for something tangled and twisted, but in the end, it sort of fizzles out. There are some characters who are hurt by its outcome, but that’s directly due to the foolish decisions they made and it hardly seems tragic.

The murder mystery and secret identity plot also fizzle out and reach rather abrupt conclusions, and the emotions of the characters affected are surprisingly subdued. Perhaps such mystery plots were still new at the time and Dickens was fiddling and experimenting.   I can understand that.

But at the end of the day, the book is just too long. There probably are some books in this world that deserve to be 900 pages, but Bleak House isn’t one of them. The scope of action could be much tighter, more centered and impacting, and directly related to that, the characters would be fewer. But then it wouldn’t be a Charles Dickens novel and so we go back to differences in tastes.   One thing Dickens did have a talent for was the whimsical use of words, and I’ll part with this funny little rant of Mr Jarndyce:

The whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration. How mankind ever came to be afflicted with wiglomeration, or for whose sins these young people ever fell into a pit of it, I don’t know; so it is.

 Whether or not Bleak House is an example of literary wiglomeration is up to you, but I will say, it’s a fun word I might start using from now on.

Book #15: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

“Oh man,” I thought, after I finished reading this book for the second time. “How do I do this?”

A recurring theme in A Passage To India is how multifaceted India is and how it’s impossible to put her into a box. Likewise, the novel itself has multiple ideas and aspects that can’t be summed up easily. Is it colonialist, post-colonialist, or neither? It’s a book that has managed to offend both British and Indians (and Edward Said), yet ultimately it’s not even a book about “India.”   Or is it? Like the elephant and the blind men in the old proverb, seven people could read it and each come away with something different but still relevant.

Maybe that’s why I read it twice.

The British Raj is on the wane in the 1920’s when the action begins. Most of the main characters are British, and so is the author. Yet the opening scene is a dinner gathering exclusively of Indians.   The big question of the evening is: “Is it possible to become friends with an Englishman?” Many of the diners argue, “No.” Among them is our eventual protagonist Aziz – a young widowed doctor with a passion for poetry:

“They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better.  I give the Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton.   It is only the difference of a letter.  And I give any Englishwoman six months.  All are exactly alike.”

It seems hardly coincidence, then, when sometime later that evening Aziz stumbles upon an older Englishwoman while both are out for a stroll on the grounds of a mosque. Aziz is mortified at first, but soon realizes the old woman – Mrs. Moore – is open-minded and genuinely interested in exploring the new culture. An unlikely connection develops between the two and Aziz begins to reconsider his previous opinions.

Mrs. Moore has in tow a prospective daughter-in-law, Adela, who also fancies herself open-minded but seems to be hell-bent on seeing “the real India” and having some sort of romantic, whirlwind Oriental experience. Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny is busy trying to keep his head above water with his job as a government worker and does not at all approve of Mrs. Moore and Adela’s dallyings with Aziz and other locals:

“We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawingroom.”

 “Your sentiments are those of a god,” she said, quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

 Trying to recover his temper, he said, “India likes gods.”

 “And Englishmen like posing as gods.”

Luckily Mrs. Moore and Adela – and Aziz – find a new friend in a school teacher, Cyril Fielding who is even more liberal in his attitudes than the two ladies and even less caring of what his fellow “Anglo Indians” think of him.

Fielding, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, Adela – along with Godbole, a Hindu colleague – begin a fragile but exciting new friendship together as they share food, conversation and poetry. Then one day, a planned expedition of theirs to the famous Marabar Caves goes horribly awry and leaves Aziz in greater doubt than ever before as to whether true friendship with English people is possible.

When I really like a book, I instinctively hold back from summarizing the whole thing.  A Passage to India is worth the read and so I won’t spoil it – especially not the famous climax at the Marabar Caves.  But I will highlight what it is that keeps me thinking about this book, long after I’ve finished reading it.

  1. The Characters

I think Forster had to be a sympathetic character during his lifetime: he was a gay man living in Edwardian England and as such was compelled to keep his identity a secret. In one way or another, all of his most important characters are outcasts or sympathetic.

Aziz is obvious: as an Indian he receives more than his fair share of prejudice and injustice from most of the British characters, although he identifies himself as a Muslim, not as an Indian (the British outsiders mostly fail to appreciate these distinctions within India, which is another recurring theme). It’s only when his negative experiences with the British leave him so embittered that he stands in the rain in a pivotal moment and realizes, “I am an Indian at last.”

For all his tribulations, though, Aziz is not without flaw. His passionate and easily provoked nature leads him to losing faith even in those he could still trust – namely, Fielding.

The relationship between Fielding and Aziz is one of the most memorable in classic literature. Detached and logical Fielding is the perfect foil to Aziz’s more reactive personality and their conversations are barbed and delightful:

(Aziz): “If money goes, money comes. If money stays, death comes. Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb? Probably not, for I have just invented it.”

 (Fielding): “My proverbs are: A penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine; Look before you leap; and the British Empire rests on them. You will never kick us out, you know, until you cease employing M.L.’s and such.”

Forster had an Indian Muslim friend in his own life – Syed Ross Masood. Most agree that the character of Fielding is patterned after Forster himself, and Aziz was very possibly inspired by Masood. It would make sense: the most convincing and dynamic relationships in literature usually seem to have a basis in real life.

The character of Fielding may not get the flack Aziz does, but he is on the periphery of Anglo-Indian society as he generally prefers the company of Indians to his own people.  He never had that attitude back in Britain – rather, he finds the expat crowd in India to ironically be more closed-minded than the English who live in England.  By siding with Aziz he effectively chooses to go against his own people.

Adela Quested is not your typical heroine, either.  She comes to India restless and full of expectation that’s set up for disappointment. She is well meaning but awkward. When she meets Aziz she sees him only as a label, not as an individual:

In her ignorance, she regarded him as “India,” and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.

 Adela, like Aziz, has to go through her trials and misadventures and in the end becomes a more mature (if still awkward) person for it. Even Ronny, Adela’s uptight fiancé is not without redeeming qualities. He does his best to be patient with his mother and her opinions, which he considers to be idealistic. He tries to be reasonable and understanding, but his stressful and political work life makes it difficult.

One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.

 It would be easy enough for an author writing a critique on British colonialism to depict those in charge as shallow and self-interested. Indeed, some of the more minor characters are just that – but examples like Ronny prove that it’s not always that simple and the reality isn’t black and white.

 2.The Ideas

 The narrative style of A Passage to India is simple and traditional, compared to certain other novels that were written around the same time (think, Virginia Woolf). In that way, it’s an easy and pleasant enough read. But the ideas themselves are anything but simple.

One of the most profound and disturbing parts of the book is when the characters enter the Marabar Caves and hear the endless “ou-boun” sound – the sound that represents the annihilation of every individual quality in life as it’s absorbed into one great whole. It’s a Eastern, particularly Hindu concept, but it freaks out western characters like Mrs. Moore who comes from a culture where individuality and immortality of the soul is paramount. Of course, the revelation in the cave – the “ou-boun” sound – is just fiction, but it gives rise to the thought: why is annihilation of the self so terrifying? Does the self live on after death, or does it get absorbed into something else? What’s the meaning of life, anyway?

A consistent theme I’ve noticed in reading novels that are written post World War I (this one included) is a heightened fear of death that comes with a doubtfulness as to there being any meaning in life. I know that sounds depressing, but I can’t really blame anyone who’s survived World War I for having those thoughts.  In A Passage to India it’s interesting to explore these thoughts with a new spin that involves Eastern religious worldviews.

This novel is, in fact, filled with uncomfortable but important questions. Another one is, “how is England justified in holding India?” It’s a question that Aziz’s friend Hamidullah puts to Fielding.

“It’s a question I can’t get my mind on to,” he replied. “I’m out here personally because I needed a job…”

 “Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.”

 “I guess they do; I got in first,” said Fielding, smiling.

 “Then excuse me again – is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available…?

 Finding himself in a corner, Fielding gives the honest answer the one can only give in such a situation:

“I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair that I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here. However big a badmash one is – if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”

 Forster is not one of those authors who takes a nihilistic view of things and claim that truth does not exist. However he suggests that the truth of some matters is more complex than we might assume. The values that the British and the Indians hold respectively lead to culture clashes and confusion. In the foreign atmosphere that is India, one cannot take anything for granted:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge into something else.

As a reader you have to wonder if Forster literally means us to understand India in that way, or if India is a metaphor for the world or even life itself. For all the metaphysical rumblings, it never gets dark or bitter like so many other 20th and 21st century novels. The ideas are just clear enough to be discussable, but deep enough to be tantalizing and discussion-worthy.

  3. The Writing

Finally, what is a great novel is the writing is not up to par? A Passage to India can admittedly be a bit dense at times, but the conversational passages are generally wonderful, and some of the descriptions are lovely as well. Here is one example:

The faint, indescribable smell of the bazaars invaded her, sweeter than a London slum, yet more disquieting: a tuft of scented cotton wool, wedged in an old man’s ear, fragments of pan between his black teeth, odorous powders, oils – the Scented East of tradition, but blended with human sweat as if a great king had been entangled in ignominy and could not free himself, or as if the heat of the sun had boiled and fried all the glories of the earth into a single mess.

 Forster traveled to India twice before finishing this novel. It’s not surprising to me, then, how alluring and vivid his descriptions of the scenery are. His India is not a perfectly beautiful one, nor is it sordid and dismal, but rather an intoxicating and arresting mixture of many qualities that resonates with other accounts of India that I have come across over the years. I have always wanted to travel to India, and this novel has only piqued my interest.  I’d be curious to know what people who have been to India think of this book.

There are those novels whose authors are masterful at character development (Jane Austen), others which are intellectually stimulating (Dostoevsky) and yet others which are beautifully written (Lolita, by Nabakov). A Passage to India does not rank first in any of these categories, yet it manages to succeed in all three of them. A testament to this is the fact I have 17 pages’ worth of highlighted passages in my reader, and still haven’t sifted through them all. You could settle down for a book discussion with your friends on a rainy day with a pot of tea and some lemon scones and after three hours still not be done with this book. If I ever am able to make it to India – and it’s high on my list of places to visit – I will definitely read A Passage in India again and will probably find several more new vantages to look at it from. But it’s possible I’ll read it again even before then.

Book #11. The Vegetarian. By Han Kang.

Apparently it’s easier being green than it is being human.

Some facts before the opinions begin. This novel has lately been the talk of the town as it’s finally made its debut in the English-speaking world. Han Kang teamed up with translator Deborah Smith (who, incredibly, began learning Korean only eight years ago at the age of 21) to get this book to an Anglo audience. As a result, it won the prestigious Man Booker International prize in 2016 – the first Korean novel to do so.   It’s no secret that with my background I’ve been on the hunt for good Korean novels. And with the background of this one’s success I was duly impressed.

But I must confess that my modest hopes were pulverized.

This nihilistic, phantasmagorical hallucination of a novel blew over me like a rude gust of wind and left me absolutely cold. It’s not that I couldn’t grasp any point or message – to be sure, it’s rich in meaning and symbolism and all that obligatory, literary stuff. I acknowledge the author’s gift for vivid, spare writing and the translator’s gift to render it seamlessly. I get why people like this book. But just as everyone has certain gastronomic preferences, my reaction to this book was that of downing a cup of traditional Chinese medicine. It was unrepentantly bitter and just the littlest bit nasty.

The plot

 Our protagonist, Yeong Hye, is an ordinary Korean housewife, “completely unremarkable in every way,” according to her husband, “Mr. Cheong” who is the narrator for Part I. Mr. Cheong is the ultimate underachiever, embracing mediocrity to the fullest as he coasts through life working at a low-profile company during the week and veg’ing out in front of the TV on his days off. Yeong Hye is a docile and “dutiful” wife who cooks and cleans and makes no demands whatsoever – the capstone to his perfectly mundane and chauvinistic existence.

All of that rudely changes after five years, when he walks in on his wife in the middle of the night, hair disheveled, throwing expensive meat and seafood out of the refrigerator. Righteously indignant he demands an explanation. Her response is an enigmatic four syllables: “I had a dream.” From that moment on she stubbornly refuses to eat meat.

Things quickly go from order to chaos as Yeong Hye’s family gets wind of the news and tries to talk sense into her. Her mother screws up her wrinkled face and makes manipulative pleas. Her abusive tyrant of a father, fed up (no pun intended) with his daughter’s carnophobia slugs her full in the face and tries to force a piece of seasoned meat into her mouth. She reacts by letting out a primal scream and trying to slash her wrist with a knife. The family has no choice but to put her in a psych hospital as the curtain falls on act one.

Part II of the story, “The Mongolian Mark,” is from the point of view of Yeong Hye’s brother-in-law, a failed installation and video artist with a taste for the erotic. He gets wind of the fact that Yeong Hye has a bluish birthmark on the hidden parts of her body and develops an obsessed desire to not only see it, but to act out a sex fantasy with her as part of an art project he’s envisioned. While not a downright clod like her husband, her brother-in-law (we never get his name) is disturbingly unconcerned by the fact that Yeong Hye is mentally and emotionally on the fringe. In fact, the only male character in the entire story who seems to have any sort of moral compass is the brother-in-law’s studio friend, J, who stops short of helping him film a graphic video without Yeong Hye’s active consent. Put out by this, the brother-in-law manages to rendezvous with Yeong Hye anyway and finally consummate his fantasy. At the same time, his horrified wife gets wise to the fact and calls in a team from the psych ward, complete with strait jackets. “Act two” ends more or less as melodramatically as the first.

Part III, “Flaming Trees,” follows Yeong Hye’s rapid deterioration at the mental hospital as her sister In Hye struggles to care for her. No longer content to refuse only meat, Yeong Hye now refuses all food and other basic human desires in order to no longer be an “animal.” She sheds her clothes to bathe in the sunlight and drinks only water, in the hope that she will photosynthesize into becoming a plant. A tree, to be exact. In Hye’s final plea to her dying, anorexic sister is, “We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?”   Yeong Hye never answers her, but I can assure you that as the reader I was enthusiastically replying, “Yes, I am quite sure I’m ready for this nightmare to come to an end.”

 The exposition:

Some people have interpreted this novel as being a commentary on South Korea’s rigid patriarchal culture and its devastating effects on women, represented by Yeong Hye and In Hye. Simply put, Yeong Hye’s rejection of meat is an outright rejection of a culture whose cuisine revolves around meat and seafood, and therefore is a rejection of that culture’s values and traditions. The main ideas in the book flow around issues within South Korea, per se.

I would argue that this is falling way short of the mark, and most readers would agree. The story is not really about being a vegetarian simply to reject patriarchal culture– it’s far too surreal and fable-like. Rather, I would argue it’s a story about a weak and vulnerable individual who finds violence in all its forms inseparable from human existence and decides therefore that she no longer wants to be human. After an abusive childhood and traumatic memories she is haunted by bloody nightmares that won’t go away, even after she stops eating meat. Her only solution is to renounce food, sex, all wants and preferences completely. Like a bizarre, Kafkaesque kind of nirvana she fancies herself literally becoming a tree and transcending humanness when, in fact, she’s actually dying of anorexia. Sounds miserable to any sane person, but ironically she’s the only happy one by the novel’s ending.

On the other hand, all the people in Yeong Hye’s life struggle with the various fleshly cares and social anxieties that Yeong Hye has managed to throw off. Her prickly prick of a husband is concerned about what others think of him. Her depressed brother-in-law is hungry for sexual fulfillment that can’t be reached. Her overworked sister, perhaps her only true friend, is bound up by family duty and sense of purpose. She even envies Yeong Hye and confesses:

She’s been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.

 So being a human basically means being a prisoner of social constraints. Especially if you’re a woman, as both In Hye and Yeong Hye suffer the most. Yeong Hye’s rejection of humanity by being a vegetarian (and later anorexic) is ultimately a desperate attempt at control in a world that seeks to take control away from you:

It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.

 No it doesn’t, because those heartless hospital workers insist on stabbing you with IV needles to keep you alive when you’re dying. How cruel of them.

So yes, if this isn’t an eloquently wrought little story about nihilism, I can’t say what it’s about.  Perhaps it’s what a lot of readers like.  To be sure there are many who have loved this book, but as far as I understand, they are the sort of people who are already sympathetic to these issues. There is nothing subtle or subversive here. Rather, it’s a nightmarish, strangled sort of scream that may validate victims who relate, but cause the rest of us to sit there blinking and wondering what on earth to think.

Perhaps most damning of all, though, is that it’s nothing terribly original. The premise of a woman rejecting cultural norms, initially intriguing and grounded in reality, descends like the second law of Thermodynamics into an extended panoramic scene of chaos and discord. The characters are one-dimensional, only there to make a point.   The narrative style shifts from a clear first person, to a more vague third person past tense, to a surreal third person present tense to create a weird dream-like quality. Perhaps that was exactly the author’s intention, but I find this style of writing overdone and wearying. The gruesome and erotic imagery did nothing to move me – it was invasive and unrelenting, something akin to a bad dream. And by extension, the entire novel is not unlike a nightmare from which you wake up, shudder, and then realize, “Oh, right, the world is thankfully not that horrible.”

While I was reading this novel it did compel my attention, but once I closed the last page the blurred-together events and scenes already began to fade from my memory. Those that didn’t I would be content to forget. Not because I think the subject matter unimportant, but because I found the pessimistic undertone defeating and senseless. So yes, it left me colder than a slab of ribeye steak at the butcher shop and no more interested in giving up eating steak – or any meat – than I was before reading this novel.

Book #10. To The Lighthouse. By Virginia Woolf.

Describing the plot of a Virginia Woolf novel is self-defeating. I’ll go ahead anyway and perhaps you’ll see what I mean:

“A family on summer vacation thinks about visiting a lighthouse. The mom and kids want to go and the dad doesn’t want to go. Meanwhile, some friends come over for dinner. Fast-forward seven years. A few people are dead. Now the dad decides he wants to go to the lighthouse after all.”

It’s no real wonder that, while incredibly famous in her own right, Woolf never became the “cozy” kind of female British writer that Austen, the Brontës and her predecessors were. She is famous, in fact, because she shook things up a bit. And while To the Lighthouse will probably never spawn a legacy of TV dramas, it is worth reading at least once for its original and sometimes startlingly beautiful use of language as well as innovative narration style. For Woolf is an author of events at the micro level, unfurling things in real-time and flitting from one character’s head to another like an all-knowing, all-seeing moth. The point is not what happens in the story so much as how she tells it.

In the opening scene we are introduced to three immediately distinct characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, and their youngest son James. Mrs. Ramsey announces to James that “if it’s fine tomorrow” they will take a trip to the lighthouse. Six-year-old James feels an extraordinary elation at the news and both his thoughts and sensations are “crystallized and transfixed in the moment.” Not only do we know James’ feelings and sensations, ­we get a picture of them:

James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling – all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he already had his private code, his secret language…

Whereupon the imposing Mr. Ramsay strides over and sours the mood by flatly announcing, “But it won’t be fine.”

This is a classic example of Woolf’s stream-of-conscious storytelling style that she employs throughout To The Lighthouse.   It consists of bits of simple outward, actual events and dialogue acting as bookends to hold together the characters’ interior existence. In this way we get to know the entire troubled yet sympathetic cast of To The Lighthouse, all characters who understandably have problems with each other because, well…no one quite understands (or tries to understand) anyone else. Welcome to life.

First in order of introduction are the Ramsays, an outwardly successful family of ten who may not be quite so content as they first appear – at least not the parents. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (significantly, we never are given their first names) have a difference in education and social roles rather typical of a turn-of-the-century couple, leading predictably to a number of misunderstandings and an understandable degree of self-pity on both sides. Mr. Ramsay is a successful philosopher and scholar paranoid of fading from prominence and memory after he dies.  Morever he struggles to be an academic and a family man at the same time (read: sometimes he’s not very nice to his family).   To outside observers he has sacrificed “all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities.”   (Gotta love Woolf’s descriptions). On top of it all, he gives Mrs. Ramsay a rather hard time by pressuring her with his needs to be continually validated, appreciated and loved.

Mrs. Ramsay is an interesting mixed bag of a character. While she is outwardly a staunch defendant of old Victorian values and especially of marriage inwardly she is becoming mildly depressed by existential issues such as death, inequality and sense of purpose in life. She spends much of her time visiting poor people in town, armed with a notebook and pencil for jotting down reflections,

In the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.

When she is not “elucidating the social problem,” she is becoming drained from continually giving and mediating in all the family affairs – yet she feels it’s worth keeping the peace – to the point she can’t bring herself to tell her husband that his greenhouse pet project is too expensive for the family budget. While certainly sympathetic, Mrs. Ramsay is one of those characters ripe for a book discussion about to what extent one is responsible for one’s own actions and feelings. Her presence continues to linger in the other characters lives’ even after she has physically departed, and it’s safe to say she makes a pretty powerful impression on the reader as well.

Meanwhile, some of the Ramsay daughters and a young neighboring friend, Lily Briscoe, are beginning to resist the old-fashioned ideals that Mrs. Ramsay keeps stuffing down their throats. Lily in particular is in a sensitive situation as she is past thirty and still single. She feels intensely Mrs. Ramsay’s sentiment that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In spite of this Lily is determined to focus on the thing that makes her happiest: her painting. If there is one character identifiable with the modern reader, it is Lily – but even so that does not mean she is the most dynamic one.  There is Charles Tansley, the often-insufferable (and secretly insecure) intellect, and also the much more even-keeled William Bankes, the widower botanist who takes an interest in Lily’s paintings and opinions where most everyone else fails to and manages to win her trust.

As I declared from the beginning, trying to wrangle a plot-line out of To The Lighthouse is more or less futile. Wrangling a theme (or two or three) is a different matter. The novel is fertile ground for topical discussions, but the only one I want to highlight right now is that of male-female relationships, especially when it comes to differences in education and social expectation.

Any generic feminist can quickly latch on to the fact that To The Lighthouse is full of criticism and commentary of traditional Victorian values and gender roles. But to see the novel as that simply, and fail to appreciate the development of the individual characters would be a desecration. Mr. Tansley, obnoxious though he can be, is also lonely and awkward. It’s hard not to blame him for feeling stifled and bored while sitting at the dinner table while Mrs. Ramsay carries on about mundane trifles. Likewise the much more likeable William Bankes would also rather be at home with a book than at social gathering with discordant personalities, however delectable the food may be. Even Mr. Ramsay who is too hard on his wife can be understood for experiencing frustration with her lack of logical thinking and educational refinement.

The end result is that a disparity in background and interests as well as societal pressures are responsible for these differences in how men and women get along – or rather fail to get along, whether they are married to each other not. Indeed, Lily Briscoe’s sentiment is that of all human relationships, “the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women.”

While it’s tempting to blame patriarchal men for the overall problem, Woolf hints that it’s not as simple as that – women like Mrs. Ramsay, after all, can perpetuate such culture. Really, all the characters are in a way the product of their circumstances, even as some of them (such as Lily and the Ramsay children) are beginning to break the mold. The empathetic view that Woolf takes of her characters is rather reminiscent of Middlemarch, that work of genius by George Eliot. Woolf herself was a great admirer, and has said that Middlemarch is “one of the few novels written for grown ups.” Perhaps that explains why being a “grown up” person dealing with existential issues and trying to get along with other grown ups is such a forefront theme in this novel.

While the stream-of-conscious writing style and comma-dense paragraphs may not be quite as accessible as Middlemarch’s simpler narrative, To The Lighthouse is certainly a rich novel in terms of human nature. I will admit there were more than I few times when I wondered, “Are they ever going to reach the damn lighthouse?” For a relatively short book, it demands its pages be read carefully – I had to read the opening chapter several times before things started to click. The abrupt shifts in points of view and leaps forward in chronology can be jarring. But if you stick it out you’ll be rewarding with interesting character development and beautiful language. As for the lighthouse itself – well, there’s this old cliché that comes to mind: “Focus on the journey, not the destination.” Read Woolf word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, and you will arrive at your destination before you know it.

Book #9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter. By Eugenia Kim.

It takes a certain kind of talent to take a depressing subject and write about it without being depressing. For that I take my hat off to Eugenia Kim for her debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter. I also have to admit it helps to read when you go in with low expectations.

After Kyung Sook Shin’s would-be tearjerker Please Take Care of Mom, I was a bit gun-shy about Korean authors. I searched for different novels in the field but came up dry. There were options, of course – but the topics ranged from dark to downright visceral, and the titles themselves weren’t the most encouraging (I Have the Right to Kill Myself – sounds lovely, doesn’t it?).

When the search engines finally led me to this novel, I took heart. The setting is Japan-occupied Korea at the turn of the century, but the protagonist is a girl from an elite family with dreams and goals of her own notwithstanding. The challenging (and sometimes tragic) events throughout are counterbalanced with hope and triumph. Many elements of the novel are actually based on the Korean-American author’s own parents, which adds a dimension of historical genuineness.

Han Na Jin is our protagonist. Technically, she doesn’t have a real name. “Najin” is her mother’s hometown, and this has become the name she goes by. Her father, the proud aristocratic scholar Han, has refused to name her out of defiance to the Japanese colonial regime, which has attempted to erase all Korean culture including male primogeniture. Because she was born at almost exactly the time Japan annexed Korea Han has a hard time even looking at his daughter without being reminded of failure and broken dreams – and of course, the fact she’s a girl and not a boy.

Initially the character of Najin seems almost embarrassingly cliché in her role as well-meaning but wayward daughter, as does her father in all his patriarchal demands. Najin tells us of her childhood:

I wasn’t a perfect daughter. Our estate overflowed with places to crawl, creatures to catch and mysteries to explore, and the clean outside air, whether icy, steamy or sublime, made me restive and itching with curiosity.

Not unlike a modern Disney princess she fumbles good-naturedly to fit into the mold her understanding mother and stern father have placed her in. From Najin,’s view, there is indeed more to life than stifling traditions in the midst of an enemy-occupied homeland.   She takes heart to pursue a daringly feminist path (for her time), partly encouraged by her accomplished young role model teacher Yee:

You must never stop learning and asking questions. A woman’s life is hard. Without a husband it’s almost impossible. But nowadays, with education, a single woman such as myself can at least be of some help to her family.

With convictions like this, Najin naturally begins to dream of loftier goals – perhaps even entrance into Ehwa University.

Once we see things from her father Han’s point of view, however, the picture is very different. In fact, reading from Han’s perspective I could not help but think of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart simply trying to hold together the social fabric and everything in life as he’s known it. While stubborn and prideful like Okonkwo, Han also proves over time to be more adaptable, as well as introspective:

Was it not a mark of personal failure that so much had been lost during his generation? He wasn’t prone to sin, though pride was a struggle, and he acted rightly and responsibly all his life. Still the stain was there, and he prayed it was contained in him alone.

Then there is Haejung, wife to Han and mother to Najin, who must exercise the ultimate balance between following tradition to appease her husband, and realizing her own dreams by helping her daughter receive the education and opportunities she herself never had. All three – Najin, Han and Haejung – will watch some dreams fall apart while other dreams are fulfilled – although not always in they way they imagined.

The story becomes progressively more interesting when a brother, Ilsun, (and thus “heir”) joins the family, only to turn out far more stubborn and willful than Najin. In the meantime, Haejung, at the expense of Han’s wrath, disrupts his plans to marry off their daughter by sending Najin away to train under her eminent aunt for a position in the royal court. The tide turns again when the royal family and staff are sent into exile, and Najin returns home to start over.

Still in Disney princess mode, Najin is somewhat determined to remain single and focus on helping her family out. Her equally stubbornly parents have different designs and set her up with a pastor-in-training, Calvin Cho. The intellectual Najin surprises herself by falling for Calvin and agreeing to marry him. She packs up her bags to accompany him to America, only to find herself separated from him at the visa checkpoint border when the Japanese officials refuse to accept her documents. From here follows the ultimate test of faith and sanity as Najin remains in Korea in the face of oncoming war, waiting for a trans-oceanic husband who may or may not forget her in the process of time.

Although Kim is no literary pioneer – and it’s worth adding she does not write with the airs of one – she deserves praise for the panoramic view she takes of Najin’s family, rather than focusing solely on the character of Najin. Han, Haejung, Ilsun, Calvin, and a host of other more distant relatives, sympathetic friends as well as more ambiguous characters at turns intrigue, surprise and even delight us as we realize they’re not just there to make a point about some kind of lofty idea. Each character is three dimensional (even the insufferable philanderer Ilsun).  You don’t blindly hate or love anyone, and better yet, you like people you don’t want to like.

On a drier but important note, the historical insight is absolutely fascinating, especially when it comes to understanding the conditions of Japan-occupied Korea. Like a well-seasoned dish, Kim provides enough details and plot events of tragic nature to create sharp and bitter sensations, but there’s more than enough hope, redemption and reprieve to make up for it.  There is an inevitable sense of loss and nostalgia, especially through Han’s eyes, but never in a sentimental way.

Perhaps just as interesting as the vivid depiction of Japan’s influence and the approaching war is the novel’s scrutiny of Korea’s rapidly changing social structure and culture, including Christianity’s absorption of Confucianism. The scholar Han represents tradition and orthodoxy: he adopts Christianity only as he sees it compatible with Confucian values. Haejung, like many other Koreans, looks to the Christian faith as a beacon of hope in a world of chaos – and she has raised her children to believe the same. Najin herself is no rebel, but she struggles to keep faith in the face of “unfair” events, even as she respects her open-minded but devout pastor husband.

While believers and atheists alike may argue till the cows come home on whether prayers are really answered, Najin imparts her final impression on why she was able to triumph in the face of her adversity:

As for me, I realized it wasn’t the answers I was seeking all those years that mattered as much as the act of seeking itself. It was incredible, this human capacity for learning, for hope, for love, that persisted like the box of light in my cell…It was beyond my understanding.

 The Calligrapher’s Daughter appears predictable and begins in a predictable enough way, but soon transforms into a rich and complex story full of surprises and ultimately, resolution. If novels had their own flavors, then compared to the putrid acidity of a postmodern Nihilist story The Calligrapher’s Daughter is one of those 80% cocoa chocolate bars you see on the impulse shelf at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter. In other words, bittersweet but very much satisfying.