Wednesday, August 7, 2019

WITMonth Day 7 | The Court Dancer Kyung-sook Shin | Review

I don't know why I came into The Court Dancer with both high expectations the sense that I wouldn't like the book at all. True, I was mostly ambivalent about Shin's earlier novel Please Look After Mom (didn't love it, didn't really hate it like some other reviewers I admire; mostly forgot about its finer details), but that was almost five years ago. And honestly, I'd been craving historical fiction for months leading up to reading The Court Dancer. I was skeptical by the marketing (so many books have disappointed me this past year, after all...), but I was also excited. So there was that.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, that I did simply enjoy The Court Dancer - it swept me up in exactly that cliched book blurb way, it kept me hooked throughout, and it made me think. (I was not really expecting that last one.) In addition to its slice of Korean history (and specifically cultural history), I enjoyed the personal story and style. Here, I felt like Shin Kyung-sook's vaguely old-fashioned writing worked well for the story, ably translated by Anton Hur. I felt like the whole book was playing with perspective, but the quietly distant style through the eyes of a character who really doesn't speak/do much in-text ended up working for me in a surprising way.

This is a little bit of an unexpected novel: It's a book with a gentle, pastel veneer that has at its core deep, roaring issues like colonialism, racism, isolationism, and the blunt side of international affairs and politics. Its progression is at times bleak, refusing to whitewash Korean history. Indeed, I found the framing of the novel - an almost silent main character whose life follows rather than leads - quite fascinating in contrast to the way the book criticizes Western tendencies to romanticize Korea and Korean women in particular.

Jin - our titular court dancer - is perhaps often unheard, but she is far from a character with no agency. Quiet as she may be, much as the story at times feels like it happens around her rather than from her, Jin emerges as someone I felt I could understand. Her loyalty, her strength, her defeat - all these felt more tangible than her beauty or stated talents (regardless how often these were mentioned...). In fact, I disliked how perfect Jin's external image remained, even as we readers see her internal conflicts.

The book is at its strongest when it deal in politics and culture. The Court Dancer has quite a bit to say about Western involvement in East Asian countries, not shying away from critiquing Jin's lover Victor (the local French legate, who falls in love with Jin), nor her new home of France once she arrives there. Jin struggles with her status as Victor's exotic "wife" (though he does not actually legally marry her), as well as her identity as a Korean woman in France. These shape a lot of the conflict in the second half of the book. 

Shin also hones in on Korea's status as a pawn in the larger regional political games from the period, whether in referencing France's ambivalence about Korea itself (rather than its vested interest in China and Japan), Japan's military influences, or internal political machinations within the Korean court. If you (like me) did not have a solid understanding of late 19th century Korean history, you might find that there are many details and references in The Court Dancer that don't always make all that much plot sense, but seem part of a larger picture. The book gained multiple dimensions once I began reading more about this period of Korean history. This actually made me appreciate The Court Dancer and Shin's writing more, particularly in the way that Shin's references made me want to read and learn more. Rather than feeling disconnect, I emerged feeling newly enlightened.

The story's pacing is solid, the writing is (as I've already mentioned) suitably old-fashioned, and there is plenty to unpack beneath the surface. There are a few things that frustrated/angered me quite a bit, though: I deeply disliked the romance between Jin and Victor (which was not remotely romantic, and indeed at times seemed explicitly framed to make me dislike it?). Jin is also frequently objectified by those around her, which while understandable in the context of the story that The Court Dancer is trying to tell, felt a little too thickly laid for my taste. Her character occasionally came too close to simply being a passive prop, particularly when seen through Victor's eyes. These are not minor quibbles, either, as they end up taking up a good deal of the book. While the story ultimately does give a lot more volume to Jin herself, the constant shifts to Victor's perspective felt like it was undoing the rest of the novel's work. All in all, I enjoyed the book more than I expected to - it seemed to fit exactly where I needed it to at exactly the right time.

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