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Eugenia Kim (1) (1975–)

Author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter

For other authors named Eugenia Kim, see the disambiguation page.

3 Works 835 Members 58 Reviews 2 Favorited

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The life of a Korean woman during the Japanese Occupation. A fine study of a woman's place in time and the terrible consequences of occupation during wartime.
 
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jemisonreads | 46 other reviews | Jan 22, 2024 |
Book club for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Lots to talk about, and the intertwined stories of two Korean sisters growing up in separate countries, separated for years by the outbreak of war and strict immigration laws — illuminated much of the history of the US and Korea in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
½
 
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baystateRA | 10 other reviews | May 18, 2022 |
You know a book is good when you get to the end and you wish it would keep going. That's exactly how I felt with this book. While at first I was a bit put out with how the story ended, I quickly came to appreciate it--this book is Najin's story, and she has enough tradition in her that she will start telling a very different story. The historical note helped, too. I felt a bit stupid for not realizing that this story is bookended by the beginning and the end of Japanese occupation.

I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I knew next to nothing about Korea before I began reading this--just a few anecdotes from acquaintances who'd traveled there in the past few years and, of course, [b:The Orphan Master's Son|13641972|The Orphan Master's Son|Adam Johnson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1367939664s/13641972.jpg|16467838]. Well, and [b:Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595|440124|Sondok Princess of the Moon and Stars, Korea, A.D. 595|Sheri Holman|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1315446323s/440124.jpg|428933], which I read ages and ages ago. Anyway, none of these came close to the early 1900s. Thanks to my ignorance, there was a bit more overlap in my imagination with Chinese and Japanese cultures than I would have liked, though China did have a very strong influence on Korea.

So much happens in this story, and it's one of my favorite kinds: sweeping, years-long, with dozens of characters. One special element of the book is that Kim departs from Najin's POV every so often to offer other another's: her mother's, her father's, her brother's. These were regular enough that they didn't feel forced, and they actually did help me to sympathize with characters who, in the context of Najin's story, can seem cruel through my 21st-century US lens. So often when I see these alternate perspectives, they only serve to reinforce their role in the main character's narrative; in this book, the interludes instead round out already vividly described characters.

I'm trying to think of how to describe what I loved so much about this book, and I think I'm going to go with the purple-prose-ish, "gentle poetry." So often when I read books about young women defying convention, they rebel against every aspect of their lives. Najin, on the other hand, has great respect for her past even as she explores the new room she has to grow her future. The reader sees that rebellion, either by completely rejecting the old ways or completely refusing the new ones, can actually be problematic instead of just noble for the sake of rebellion (a very American notion, I think). Najin's efforts to bridge her traditional upbringing and her modern life are deeply moving.

I always have to have a complaint, of course, and this time it's (probably) entirely directed at the publisher.

First of all, the title. Yes, "The _'s Daughter"/"The _'s Son" is a hugely popular formula these days, and I'm guilty of succumbing (case in point, [b:The Hangman's Daughter|9496240|The Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter, #1)|Oliver Pötzsch|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327868295s/9496240.jpg|14381730]), but it seems a shame to limit Najin's life so much when she's only identified by the phrase once (15). There's a little bit of me rebelling at the patriarchy here: despite her remarkable story, she's identified by her father's occupation; but there's also the practical fact that "[description]'s daughter" is actually a way that Koreans in Najin's world identify each other. This puts even more weight on the tie with her father, when I would argue that her far more significant tie is with her mother. That's how she gets her name, after all: "her mother is the woman from Nah-jin" (15). Granted, "The Daughter of the Woman from Nah-Jin" is a bit clunky, but I think it rolls well enough. Still, that simple formula won the day. I'd love to know if Kim offered any alternative suggestions.

Second of all, the back cover blurb. This is frequently a source of frustration for me in fiction books, since they're written by the publisher and they tend to play up the parts that don't interest me and play down the parts that do. Most of the second paragraph on this book plays up a love story that, in the text, is so fragile that Najin isn't sure she can call it that. Oh, and the first line of the second paragraph gives away a major plot point--spoiler right on the cover! There's also a curious amount of attention paid to Najin's time in the royal palace, which only takes up one chapter of the book but gets one out of only seven sentences in the description. I have a few ideas for how I'd rewrite it, but I won't bore you.

But back to the praise: all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. Don't forget to read the historical note at the end!

Quote Roundup

112) My tears were for [my mother's] sacrifice of her principles of duty and honor to Father because of me. I was overwhelmed with new understanding of her love, only to be saddened at having to part from her.
Najin and her mother never say that they love each other, but their actions show it in the most beautiful ways. Najin may be the modern woman, but it's often her mother who defies tradition on her behalf--incredible bravery in such a strictly patriarchal culture.

153) "You mustn't tell him! What will he think of me then!" I considered what to do. Joong might indeed find fault with his bride if he knew she'd seen another man's sex.
A Japanese soldier stands in the way of Najin and her servant/friend Kira to be sure that they see him masturbating while looking at them. When Najin suggests that Kira should only travel with her fellow servant and fiance Joong, Kira has the reaction above. This, more than most of the other slights against women in the book, rattled me. Everything else seemed like a gradient of attitudes that I've read about before. It's bad enough that most major countries have a history of rape apology and overvaluing virginity, but the fact that sexual harassment--by its very nature unwanted and unprovoked--could so negatively impact the life of the recipient rather than reflecting badly on the instigator was especially gut-wrenching. I couldn't help thinking of some of the experiences my friends in Morocco had, and how devastating this kind of thinking would have been for them.

237-238) I had needed his permission to go to America more than I realized--no, not his permission, but his understanding that every action of his affected all the family, and that our individualism was meaningless without accepting our bonds of blood.
I just thought this was exceptionally beautifully phrased. Kim is a master of providing glimpses of humanity in even the story's main antagonists, and this is a case in point.

314) I had felt pride in describing Bible stories to him, in God's choice of me to deliver his Word, and in God's watchfulness that had kept me whole. It was because of me that the Major had noticed our estate. Because of me, Major Yoshida would take from my father, from all of my family, the markers of our ancestry, tradition and history that creaked in the ancient beams, lived in the mortar, the stones and soil, and sang in the trees and stream. And then I thought that man was small, so easily overcome by demons of pride and hatred, but I was less than small, and should have been among those who screamed in the night.

374)I had a quote on this page before I realized that it was the second-to-last page in the book. For that reason, I'll leave it out, and leave you to get this far and read for yourself.

378) Quick fascinating item from the historical note: Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written word--Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from a diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631.
… (more)
 
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books-n-pickles | 46 other reviews | Oct 29, 2021 |
 
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CharlotteBurt | 10 other reviews | Feb 1, 2021 |

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