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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
Inspired by the life of her mother, Eugenia Sunhee Kim recounts the tale of a woman who dares to fight for a brighter future in Japan-occupied Korea. In the early-twentieth-century, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny, though her country is crumbling, and her family, led by her stern father, is facing difficulties that seem insurmountable. Narrowly escaping an arranged marriage, Najin takes up a new role as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.
Najin pursues a coveted education and is surprised to find love. After one day of marriage a denied passport separates her from her new husband, who continues alone to America. As a decade passes and the world descends into war, Najin loses touch with her husband. Will the love they share be enough to sustain her through the deprivation her country continues to endure? The Calligrapher's Daughter is a richly drawn novel about a nation, and a family, torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities.
"One bizarre image tends to dominate Americans' impressions of Korea: that of dictator Kim Jong Il, whose catastrophic reign overshadows centuries of a rich, complex culture. Eugenia Kim's sensitive first novel, which depicts 30 years of Korea's modern history in light of its ancient past, is an illuminating prequel to present-day events. Set from 1915 to 1945, it's an intrinsically interesting account of the collisions of cultures: the strict traditions of the aristocratic (yangban) class gradually superseded by the inevitable changes of modernity and the attempted erasure of Korean language and traditions by the occupying Japanese. Against this dark background, Kim recounts a poignant family history, much of it based on her own mother's life . . . Kim's account acquires depth and immediacy as she draws vivid pictures of wartime poverty and hardship. Throughout the narrative, she gradually reveals many facets of Korean identity, especially the role of religion, where devout Christianity exists in harmony with Confucian belief and ritual. As Najin begins to question Christian doctrine about the sanctity of suffering and sacrifice, her conflicting emotions add dimension to her character. In quietly recording the arc of a woman's experience from idyllic childhood through harrowing adulthood, Kim mirrors the changing nation . . . Overall this is a satisfying excursion into empathetically rendered lives."—Sybil Steinberg, The Washington Post
“The Calligrapher’s Daughter fascinated me, as much for its characters as for its engrossing story of Korea under the Japanese occupation. Najin’s father is admirable for exactly the traits that make him difficult, and her apparently passive mother is heroic. I can’t stop thinking about them and their honest, brave, and very human daughter.”—Alice Mattison, author of Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn and The Book Borrower
“In The Calligrapher's Daughter Eugenia Kim beautifully chronicles both the lost world of a traditional Korea and the lost childhood of her remarkable heroine. A coming-of-age story that resonates with larger significance, the novel movingly depicts the emotional cost of transformation and the love and sacrifice that makes transformation possible. The Calligrapher's Daughter is at once the story of a single life as well as the changing life of a nation and, while the details are fascinatingly exotic, the narrative rings with the hard won truths of profound human experience. It is a note-worthy debut from a writer with great heart and real empathy.”—Sheridan Hay, author of The Secret of Lost Things
"Fans of Lisa See’s or Amy Tan’s novels should eagerly embrace Najin, and The Calligrapher’s Daughter bids fair to become a staple of book clubs."—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
“Eugenia Kim’s sweeping debut, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, rises tall from a riveting scene that begs to be read and re-read—as does her entire novel. . . . 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.”— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“A rich debut.”—Good Housekeeping
“A bold, richly detailed story about the young daughter of a well-known calligrapher in turn-of-the-20th-century Korea . . . The daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up hearing stories of her family's life before the Korean War. A dearth of literature about the lives of Korean women during the occupation led Kim to interview her mother. That, with other meticulous research, helped the Washington, D.C. resident paint this vivid, heartfelt portrait of faith, love and life for one family during a pivotal time in history.”—Amy Scribner, Bookpage
"What distinguishes The Calligrapher's Daughter from other Asian mother-daughter novels—and there are many—is its setting in Korea under Japanese occupation. Because Korean history is not well-known in the United States, Eugenia Kim's debut novel feels particularly fresh. More straightforward in presentation than an Amy Tan tale, The Calligrapher's Daughter draws the reader's attention through well-developed characters. An old-fashioned sweeping narrative carries the daughter, Najin, through 30 turbulent years, from the summer of 1915, when she was 5, to December of 1945 and the end of World War II. It's gripping and often unpredictable . . . Kim creates a strong, sweet bond between mother and daughter that is maintained throughout the novel. When Han makes plans to send 14-year-old Najin off to be married, the mother confounds him by securing the girl a place at the Korean court as companion to the princess. Moving forward chronologically, the narrative creates suspense over what will happen to the Han family as Japanese rule becomes increasingly restrictive . . . One of the freshest parts of the novel involves the entrance of Najin's suitor, Calvin Cho, when she is in her mid-20s. His energy and Western ways unhinge her as he conducts a swift courtship. When bureaucracy comes in the way of their love, and Cho disappears, the novel seems less alive without him. Under traditional Korean teaching, individuals must give up their own desires to serve the family, and thus the nation. In a changing country, Kim's characters wrestle with that concept."—Anne Morris, The Dallas Morning News
"Eugenia Kim's just-published first novel, The Calligrapher's Daughter was born from a ghost story about the calligrapher. Kim's mother, who told her the story, was the actual calligrapher's daughter, and Kim is the calligrapher's granddaughter . . . The ghost story led indirectly to her beautifully moving debut novel about struggles within the calligrapher's Korean family and within their country, spanning 30 years of Korea's brutal occupation by the Japanese in the early 20th century. The novel ends (spoiler alert) when the calligrapher's daughter and her husband, who were separated forcibly the day after their wedding, are reunited after 10 years. World War II's ended, which also ended Japan's occupation of Korea. Readers will be clamoring for a sequel."—Marsha Dubrow, The Examiner
"Eugenia Kim's sweeping debut, The Calligrapher's Daughter, 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 . . . 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."—Geeta Sharma Jensen, The Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee)
“The novel, based on the life of the author's mother, comes to a satisfying conclusion with the surrender of Japan and the reunion of the couple. Descriptive imagery communicates Najin's philosophical musings, dreams, and appreciation of nature. Readers are left with greater understanding of the horrors of Japanese occupation and of the cultural, political, and religious upheaval that Korean families faced as they negotiated the modern world. Delicate black-and-white illustrations complement the prose. A compelling narrative about an intellectually curious and brave heroine.”—Jackie Gropman, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library System, School Library Journal
“Kim has excelled at portraying Najin as a spirited yet loyal daughter and wife while exposing a tragic time during Korea’s sustained history as a nation.”—Faye A. Chadwell, Library Journal
“Kim opens a window into a vanished world in this sensitively rendered homage to her mother’s life. . . . Fans of Lisa See’s recently published Shanghai Girls will be drawn into this achingly beautiful tribute to female perseverance and survival.”—Booklist
“This debut novel, inspired by the life of the author's Korean mother, is a beautiful, deliberate and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history. The tradition-bound aristocratic calligrapher Han refuses to name his daughter because she is born just as the Japanese occupy Korea early in the 20th century. When Han finds a husband for Najin (nicknamed after her mother's birthplace) at 14, her mother objects and instead sends her to the court of the doomed royal Yi family to learn refinement. Najin goes to college and becomes a teacher, proving herself not only as a scholar but as a patriot and humanitarian. She returns home to marry, but her new husband goes without her to study in America when she is denied a visa. As the Japanese systematically obliterate ancient Korean culture and the political climate worsens, so do Najin's fortunes. Her family is reduced to poverty, their home is seized and Najin is imprisoned as a spy while WWII escalates. The author writes at a languorous pace, choosing not to sully her elegant pages with raw brutality, but the key to the story is Korea's monumental suffering at the hands of the Japanese.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Daughter of the Woman from Nah-jin
SUMMER - AUTUMN 1915
I LEARNED I HAD NO NAME ON THE SAME DAY I LEARNED FEAR. UNTIL that day, I had answered to Baby, Daughter or Child, so for the first five years of my life hadn't known I ought to have a name. Nor did I know that those years had seen more than fifty thousand of my Korean countrymen arrested and hundreds more murdered. My father, frowning as he did when he spoke of the Japanese, said we were merely fodder for a gluttonous assimilation.
The servants called me Ahsee, Miss, and