Thursday, September 12, 2019

Kyung-Sook Shin's The Court Dancer, set in 19th-century Korea and Belle Époque Paris

For historical fiction fans interested in courtly intrigue but ready to move on from English and European locales, here’s a novel to consider. It should also attract literary fiction readers seeking a new perspective on France’s Belle Époque, or anyone who appreciates poetic writing and themes of cross-cultural identity.

I’d purchased Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer for the library’s bestseller collection a year ago after reading positive reviews but didn’t have time to read it myself until now. The fluid translation into English is by Anton Hur.

Based on a brief mention in a century-old diplomatic memoir, it fleshes out a tale set during a historical turning point. In 1876, the Jaemulpo Treaty (also called the Treaty of Ganghwa) between Japan and Korea ended Korea’s lengthy period of isolationism, after which many countries in the East and West began looking toward it, with an eye to diplomatic relations or foreign control.

Although not labeled as such, the novel's first chapter acts as a prologue that divides the rest of the novel into two halves: what happens before and after. In 1891, Yi Jin, a 22-year-old dancer at the Korean royal court, sails to France in the company of the man who loves her: Victor Collin de Plancy, the first French legate to Korea’s Joseon Kingdom. Although Jin holds affection for him and opens herself up by letting him brush her lustrous black hair (the story is full of symbolic actions such as these), it becomes clear she had little choice.

The Queen, who had acted as Jin’s surrogate mother, noticed the King’s growing attentions toward Jin and got him to send her away. This is a radical decision not only because of Jin’s and Victor’s unusual interracial relationship but also because agreeing to become a court dancer is itself a ritual as binding as a wedding ceremony. “Take care to live beautifully, so your name inspires a feeling of grace in the people who speak it,” the Queen tells her in farewell: eloquent but uninspiring words, since they address her behavior rather than personal happiness.

Throughout her life, Jin struggles to discover who she is, and in many indelible passages, Shin highlights her painfully illuminating journey from childhood on. A nameless orphan raised at the royal court, she forms an attachment to the lonely Queen Min and learns French from a visiting priest. While in Paris, Jin is accepted everywhere as Victor’s wife and draws applause for her inspired reading of Guy de Maupassant’s A Woman’s Life in the author’s presence. However, despite her fluent French and adoption of Western dress in a country that celebrates freedom, she attracts uncomfortable attention: feeling much like the Africans she sees in a dreadful Bois de Boulogne exhibit, put on display as an exoticized “other.” Victor collects Korean books and celadon pottery, and she grows troubled, imagining herself as another object.

“Jin could not be free of the attention of strangers, whether they were from kindness of curiosity. And without that freedom, there could be no equality.” Sometimes Shin lets readers soak up the symbolism in her beautiful imagery; other times, like here, she is effectively direct.

As a protagonist, Jin is hard to get to know. Her character feels opaque early on, and her physical appearance is highlighted (with multiple descriptions of the elegant nape of her neck, for example), but Shin gradually lets readers join her inner world. The author’s penchant for revealing a key plot point at a chapter’s beginning, then working her way backward to reveal how the situation happened, is a technique that some readers will find suspenseful, while others will find it frustrating. I found it some of both. That said, this melancholy novel about a courageous, misunderstood woman rewards those who stick with it.

The Court Dancer was published by Pegasus in 2018.

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