Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

0156032708 Trade Paperback/$14.00/348 pages/Harcourt Publishers/Historical Fiction/2004

One time a friend and I were browsing through the shelves of fictional literature at the local bookstore when suddenly a book fell off the shelf and into my arms. After I got over the shock of being hit with a book, I made a move to put it back, but my friend wouldn't let me; she insisted that the book jumped at me because it was bearing a message I had to read! I put it down to new age craziness at that time, but since then I have heard many people say that when books appear out of nowhere they are usually messengers from the Divine and the "other world". Babe Halliwell, academic and protagonist of Margaret Drabble's fiction book "The Red Queen" , must have heard that too, because when the memoirs of an 18-century Princess of the Korean Yi Dynasty were mailed to her anonymously, and she finds upon reading it that there were so many similarities between her and the Empress even though atleast two centuries were keeping them apart, she was lead to believe that perhaps the spirit of the Red Queen was speaking to her, instructing Halliwell to tell the world her story. "...The Crown Princess sits invisibly at the elbow of Babs, self-summoned from two centuries of sleep, urgent with her messages from the other world".

As soon as Babe Halliwell arrives in Seoul (where she is to attend a conference), she visits the old palace of the Princess, ("Changgyeonggung " or "The Palace of Glorious Blessings", where I, too, once walked) and feels the spirit of the Princess walking with her - but all this takes place in the second half of the book, let me take you back to the beginning...

In the first section of the book, Ms. Drabble chooses to use the first person narrative and has Princess Hong (known to history as Lady Hyegyong) telling us her story almost 200 years after she left the physical world. In other words, she is now a ghost looking back on her life as wife of Crown Prince Sado! I have to admit I really enjoyed this unusual approach to the telling of a memoir....

Princess Hong was married at the age of 10 to the son of YongJo, the ruling king of Korea. Although Korea is a patriarchal society, the Emperor so clearly favored his three daughters over his son young Prince Sado costing him his self-esteem. SInce the only time his father would talk to him was to criticize him. Infact, after the monarch spoke to his son he would always rinse out his mouth, wash his ears and change into a fresh robe! Prince Sado came to hate and fear his father and these two powerful emotions seemed to manifest themselves in many unnatural behaviors including "killing for fun", incestuous orgies, a fear of clothes and so on. The princess' ghost being a product of the 21st century can now label these afflictions with the psychological and sociological jargon that we readers are so familiar with and decides that her husband suffered from "obesessive compulsive disorders', "paranoid schizophrenia" and finally "clinical insanity".

When the unfortunate Prince Sado's madness couldn't be contained the King was forced to do away with him, but according to Korean Law, he couldn't have him killed - the Prince had to be persuaded to commit suicide. I will say no more about that for fear of spoiling it for someone wanting to read the book.

This book has had mixed reviews - people have either loved or hated it! I fall in the former category, but I do think that the second section was long drawn out and most readers will want to just skim over a lot of the pages. Having said that, however, I think Ms. Drabble has spun an exquisite tale about Korea's bright, but tragic princess - she has given us a glowing, overgrown garden of intrigue, lies, murders, madness, magic, violence and claustrophobia, using the ghostly narrator to great operatic effect. Her meticulous research of the historic setting provides us with more than a glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom of 18th-century Korea, although she is very careful to stress in the prologue she makes no attempt to 'describe Korean culture ' or to reconstruct 'real life' in the Korean court.

As one comes to the end of this story there are important questions one must ponder:
  • Why do some of us write memoirs? Is to remember or is to be remembered?
  • In this modern age I suspect blogging is almost like a daily record- why is it so important to us to do this?
  • Princess Hong states in her memoirs that she wrote them to set the record straight regarding her family - do we have a responsibility to preserve the memories and legacies of the people we love?
  • Is there such a thing as direct-messages, either from a text or from "beyond the grave"?

In closing, I will recommend the first part of the book whole-heartedly, especially for lovers of historical fiction - it is a beguiling peek into the life and times of a character we don't often hear of, but the second part of the book might well be left alone.

As I read "The Red Queen" I kept thinking of Anchee Min's, "Empress Orchid" ( Tzu Hsi, China's longest-reigning female ruler and its last Empress) which I read last year. I thought it would be nice to include a short synopsis here provided by the publishers:

To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor's wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will go to any lengths to bear the Emperor's son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.


hellomelissa said...

i LOVE the idea of the book leaping into your arms! and it does seem like something you might read otherwise, too! i'm proud of you for sticking out a boring second half. i always chuck 'em if i'm bored.

Lotus Reads said...

Phew, this was one very difficult book to review! It's so unique and so full of clever ideas but it's hard to bring all those qualities into a review!

Janelle Martin said...

I didn't read this review indepth because this book is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it. Margaret Drabble is one of my favourite authors and I am really looking forward to it but have to admit in reality that it's going to be at least a year until I get to it.

Thanks for reminding me about it!

Oh, and I share hellomelissa's enthusiasm for the idea of a book leaping into your arms.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lotus,

I thought you might find the second half to be sort of unnecessary. What did you think of the ending? Did you think it was clever what Drabble did? I suspect you might have liked it considering it parallels the idea of a book falling into your arms, or finding its way to you. I wasn't impressed with it. I agree that the first half was more interesting than the second, but I found that there was just too much information that wasn't structured well.

I definitely fall into the category of not liking it in the end. The San Francisco Public Library considered it a must read though, because they nominated it for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.