History: This book was published in 2004.
Plot: In the prologue, Drabble tells of the court memoirs of a Korean princess written over 200 years ago, and this novel is based on those writings. The Princess tells her story for the first half of this novel. Introduced to the court when she is a child, she is selected to be one of three candidates for marriage to the Crown Prince. When she is chosen to be his bride, she is required to abandon her own family for life in the court, marrying the prince at ten and consummating the marriage at fifteen. We hear her voice as she relates the sad changes her husband undergoes after their marriage, as he gradually becomes more and more fearful, and eventually insane, committing atrocities, including murder, and going unpunished, protected by the court itself. She was unable to stop his rampages, she felt were caused by the over bearing father, and lack of his attention. Describing her relationships with the Three Queenly Majesties (her mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen, and even the king's first wife), her training to be queen, the birth of her children and their fates, and her life in the claustrophobic court, she breathes life into her descriptions of her unusual existence.
At this point in the novel, time fast-forwards to Babs Halliwell, a contemporary scholar on a Hanbury Foundation Fellowship in Oxford, about to go to Korea to deliver a paper at a conference on globalization. Drabble creates obvious parallels between the life of the Princess and that of Babs Halliwell from the outset of Part II. Halliwell boards the plane for Korea, she brings with her a copy of the Princess's memoirs and when she reads it in flight, she is consumed by the memoir. At the conference, she becomes involved with the “star” of the conference, world famous Jan von Jost. She lets him read the memoirs, and he too becomes entranced with them. They visit the historic places of Korea together, along with Dr. Oo, who becomes their guide to Korea. Jan is married to a Spanish/Swedish woman who desperately wants to adopt a Chinese baby, and he puts a one thousand dollar deposit down on a Chinese girl, choosing her because she kept eye contact with him.
After their final night together, Dr. Halliwell awakens to find Jan going into respiratory arrest in the bed, and he dies. Heartbroken, she returns back to England, trying to resume her life, still obsessed with the memoirs, and the memory of her time with Jan. She eventually calls his widow, and together they adopt the Chinese baby, and share parenting with her.
At the end of the novel, Dr. Halliwell and her daughter Chen Jianyi meet Margaret Drabble, the novelist who will bring the Red Queen’s memoirs to the public.
Review: The first part, rewriting the memoir of a historical figure known (in the most recent of several translations) as Lady Hyegyong, is a stark and brutal drama set in the court of imperial Korea. The second is a genial contemporary portrait of Dr. Babs Halliwell, a person of swoony compulsions, struggling intellect and half-guilty but reasonably efficient ambition. I liked the comparison between historical and present, and the interweaving of the ghost like Lady Hyegyong within the heroines actions. What I didn’t like was the affair with Jan, because it was a little unbelievable, and was unnecessary, I thought. And I also didn’t like the significance given to the red feminine clothing, too superficial for such a wonderful historic portrayal of court life. And Babs was given such wonderful attributes, I just think Drabble may have been stretching it, taking herself a bit too seriously. But overall it was very entertaining to read.
Opening Line: “When I was a little child, I pined for a red silk skirt.”
Closing Line: “She hides the little red bundle safely in the back of the drawer.”
Quotes: “One of her many astral bodies is travelling restlessly, like a shuttle, apologetic, ashamed, backward and forward along an airport highway, clutching a suitcase and smelling of sweat and dirt and pressurized bodily gases.”
Rating: Very Good.