Enjoy 18th Century Korean Culture in the Memoirs of a Crown Princess

redqueenMargaret Drabble’s The Red Queen blurs the lines of fact and fiction to tell the rise (and fall) of Korea’s Crown Princess. Synthesized and fictionalized from various memoirs and biographies concerning the Crown Princess, the first half of the novel is her own firsthand account of the events of the Royal Family (as told by the Crown Princess some 200 years in the future). The second half of the novel follows Dr. Babs Halliwell as she reads these memoirs and how it affects her trip to Korea for a conference.

The first half is a deeply engrossing story that is easy to get sucked into (like Halliwell does in the second half). It has a Memoirs of a Geisha feel that brings the culture of Korea to life in a fascinating way. Just as the Crown Princess becomes posthumously obsessed with royal biographies, her own royal story is just as interesting to read and share.

The second half is somewhat underwhelming compared to the first. Babs is on her way to a conference in Korea when she becomes deeply engrossed in the Crown Princess’ memoirs. The story then delves into the minutiae of her time in Korea in similar fashion to Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Solar. She gets involved with two different men and explores the historical sites that were mentioned in the memoirs.

It’s not until the final 30-odd pages that Drabble tries to tie everything together and make a point. But by then the fascination with the novel has faded greatly from the piquant first half. Her writing style is exact yet stark, easy to become engrossed in but still leaving something to be desired. Her transcultural themes, too, leave something to be desired, as the tie between the two halves of the novel feels too weak. But the memoirs in the first half are enough to make this novel a worthy read and land it a spot on The List.

 

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