This is an example of a book that, had I been unfamiliar with the author, I might have abandoned. I would have found it too disjointed, too oddly constructed to hold my interest. This book is like two books jammed together (and not very gracefully). The first half is the memoir of an 18th century Korean crown princess, a real person, whose history is apparently well-known even today in Korea. Drabble's version of the memoir, while based on an original version, is fictionalized. Drabble's princess narrates her memoir from beyond the grave with all the hindsight available from this position. "I have been dead now for 200 years, but I have not been idle," she says. She has read Freud, and follows the fortunes of modern day royal families. Her story is gripping (though overly long): married to the crown prince as a child, she is confined to the intrigue-filled palace, her husband's behavior growing more unpredictable and bizarre with each passing year. His eventual death, at the hands of his father, is tragic and unsettling. Throughout her story, the princess refers frequently to her "earthly representative," a "chosen vessel" who continues to provide her with the access she needs to modern life.
The second half of the book is the story of Dr. Barbara Hallowell, a professor who receives a copy of the crown princess's memoirs in the mail from an anonymous source. Is she the chosen vessel? Bingo. This story was familiar Drabble territory: an intelligent woman navigating the whitewater rapids of modern (usually academic) life. Dr. Hallowell is on her way to a medical conference in Seoul when she receives the memoirs. She reads them on the plane, and becomes obsessed with the crown princess. Events both predictable and unpredictable follow, in a vein somewhat more cheerful than typical Drabble fare.
If you've never read Margaret Drabble, I don't think this is the book to start with. The princess's imperious tone makes the memoirs a little annoying to read, and I think Drabble included too much detail. I liked the second part, but you've got to get through the first part first. As I said earlier, it was mostly my trust in Drabble that kept me going.
Drabble is editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the author of seventeen novels. Along with Iris Murdoch, she was one of my college literature favorites, and I've been reading her since my undergraduate days. Readers new to Drabble should start with The Gates of Ivory, or The Witch of Exmoor, two books with more straightforward narrative arcs. Despite Drabble's lofty reputation, her books are not difficult or inaccessible, though they are serious.
(Book 4, 2007)