"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees
This novel offers a glimpse into the life of Koreans during the Japanese occupation. The main character, Han Najin, strives for higher education and the freedom to choose her own destiny despite strict traditions and stifling patriarchy that limit opportunities for women, even those from a higher socioeconomic status like her. But despite her modern thinking, Najin still respects the positive values of her country's traditions, such as the emphasis on loyalty and responsibility to one's family.
The story is a bit slow sometimes, and it can be discouraging to see Najin repeatedly getting the short end of the stick in spite of all her efforts and dedication. This book has a heavy Christian tone, but I find it realistic that Najin struggles with her faith amidst the sorrows she faces in her life and the suffering of the people around her as Korea descends into war. The mother-daughter relationship is endearing. Eugenia Kim wrote the novel based on her own mother's story, and I wish the author's notes or interview at the end of the book had addressed which elements are fact and which are fiction (we can find some hints of the facts, however, from pictures of her family in wartime Korea posted at her website, www.thecalligraphersdaughter.com). Another fascinating part for me is the scenes depicting Korea's last royal family, which scattered as Japan took over the kingdom.