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Maid in Korea

ONE THOUSAND CHESTNUT TREES by Mira Stout Flamingo pounds 16.99
This is subtitled "a novel", but since Stout is herself half-Korean, it's hard to believe that her book is anything other than autobiographical. Her heroine, Anna, brought up in Vermont by an American father and Korean mother, confesses that until adulthood, she made no attempt to uncover her Korean roots. We learn that she moves to New York and becomes a painter, but is troubled by a nagging sense of pointlessness and self-doubt. A trip to Korea, she decides, would lift her wilting spirits and One Thousand Chestnut Trees is the result. But before Stout/Anna embarks on a journey of self-discovery, she supplies a fascinating digression on the lives of her Korean grandparents and great-grandparents.

Her family are yangban, Korean nobility, and her great-grandfather was not only feudal lord over most of the Kangwon Province but also a yinsa, or imperial scholar. Well posh, in other words. When Stout's flashback (forming about two-thirds of the book) opens in 1936, Anna's mother is a child living a blissful, pre-lapsarian existence on her grandfather's estates. The adults around her, however, have already seen the slow stripping away of their lands and titles by the Japanese. Korean libraries are burnt, the language is banned and the country's history is rewritten. Worse, of course, is to come, and the story of the parents' survival during the war and the mother's eventual escape to the US via a music scholarship in 1951 makes horrifying, moving and tremendously exciting reading.

Stout's descriptions bring Korea's stately, cultured civilisation and heavenly landscape into sharp focus like a jewel-coloured miniature. Her book restores humanity and particularity to the "Hermit Kingdom" - "one of the oldest, most insular nations on earth, autonomous, racially, linguistically and culturally distinct for 5,000 years".

Alas, when Anna steps off the plane in Seoul the book descends into travelogue. Nothing wrong with that, but Stout does call her book "a novel", and anyone who thinks they can substitute a story - not only enjoyable in itself but also linked to formal and symbolic structure - with lyrical reflections and anecdotes about embarrassing dinners with relations and shopping in a foreign language should think again. If she'd left herself out of it, Stout would have written a better book.