The Red Queen

The tomb of Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyong
Some people love book challenges, some hate them, some just don't see the point. I've been taking part in the 666 Challenge this year (reading 6 books set in 6 different countries on 6 continents), if I hadn't been taking part in the challenge I probably wouldn't have read Margaret Drabble's The Red Queen. Set partly in eighteenth-century Korea, part in modern-day S. Korea this is a patchy read, but a very interesting one.

The first third of the book follows the true-life-story of the eponymous red queen, the Lady Hyegyong, an eighteenth-century Crown Princess of Korea. It's a particularly grisly tale, Hyegyong's husband suffers from what appears to be a form of schizophrenia, and is not adverse to murdering friends and servants when suffering from a bout of paranoia. Hyegyong, speaking to us from beyond the grave, comes across as a remarkably strong and modern character. The section following the life of the Crown Princess was fascinating, I wanted to read more, and am intending to track down her memoirs (available in a modern edition edited by Jahyun Kim Haboush)

The middle section follows another strong woman, this time a modern-day academic attending a conference in S. Korea. Having come across a copy of the Princess's memoirs Babs Halliwell is as fascinated by the life of this strong woman as are we the readers. Babs unexpectedly finds romance on the conference circuit and arising from this will in the last section of the novel be drawn back to the Far East to adopt a Chinese girl-child. The end of the book suggests that this child will be the person who will make Lady Hyegyong famous worldwide.

The first section of the book is wonderful, and felt as though it should be a lot longer. The middle section was, I thought, not entirely successful. It just all feels a bit unlikely, and doesn't seem to have much to do with the first section. I wasn't entirely convinced by the ending either. The novel became very obssessed with post-modernism, using every trick in the book (yes, the author does make an appearance) to shout how very post-modern it is. It just all felt rather technical, and you wondered what was the point. However this book is well worth reading just for the Korean Princess material alone. She will completely enthrall and captivate you, having once read her story it will not be easily forgotten.


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