"I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear," Najin Han, the narrator of Eugenia Kim's debut novel tells us. And she learns fear at an early age: during the first five years of her life, more than 50,000 of her Korean countrymen are arrested and murdered. As an only child in an upper-class household in the early part of the 20th century, she is expected to uphold a long tradition of propriety, bound by rules "to still my feet, busy my hands and quiet my tongue". Here, though, she is allowed to take the reins of the first-person narration and her tongue is gloriously unleashed.
Her father, the calligrapher of the title, attempts to shape his daughter's life with the same authority with which he might shape a word on a page, but this is a story of re-appropriating one's own narrative. Najin's mother sends her to serve as the companion to a young princess in the king's court – a defining moment in her development that comes at a defining moment in her country's history: the death of the king and the end of dynastic culture.
Drawing on her own mother's life, Kim weaves a wonderfully nuanced historical portrait, rich in detail and resonant with meaning and wisdom.