Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Red Queen: Did I miss something?

Really did NOT like this book. Actually, could barely wait until it was over. Never been a huge fan of historical fiction - I just don't really like it. This particular (and hardly stunning) example of the genre is set in Korea, about 200 years ago. It's about the crown princess, Lady Hong. 200 years after her death, she looks back on her life as a ghost, a ghost who has used the past 200 years of death to study the ways of the modern world and to attempt to... I never quite worked out what it was she was trying to do. Manipulate some poor innocent into taking up her story and telling it to the world? Something like that.

So that was the first half of the novel. The second half is about the life of the person Lady Hong chooses to be her 'emissary', Babs Halliwell. She's a British academic who reads the memoirs of Lady Hong on the plane to a conference in South Korea. Fascinated by the story (but really, if the first half of this book is what Babs read, what's so fascinating about it?) she somehow manages to fulfil her role as the 'emissary' by adopting a Chinese baby. On the way she meets and falls briefly in love with the famous Dutch sociologist Jan van Jost. Far-fetched, random and pointless in the extreme.

OK, firstly the narrative point of view was totally bizarre and added nothing to the story. I mean, a ghost? 200 years in the future? Why would you do it? I think it might have been partially that which distanced me from the characters. Sure, she had a pretty awful life - having your husband starving to death in a rice chest over the course of twelve days is a little uncool - but I couldn't identify with it. Good historical fiction is good because it puts you there. You feel like you're living it. Putting the narrator at such a far remove spoiled this for me, I think. I couldn't and can't feel any sympathy for the characters, simply because it was so unsympathetically written. I had to physically stop reading the book and think about it before I realised that I was actually reading about something that should be quite tragic.

Maybe I should be more tolerant, more accepting. I suppose it is a change from your average common-or-garden historical fiction, which I don't like much anyway. But it just doesn't work.

The second half of the book was mildly more entertaining, but this IS NOT SAYING MUCH because it was just trashy. Trashy romance, trashy setting, trashy plot and trashy characters do not make for a satisfied reviewer. Seriously, it was literally like the Da Vinci Code or some crappy thriller, except without the thrills.

Reading back over this, I actually think I'm being a little harsh. While I was reading it, I didn't dislike it particularly - it was entertaining enough, I suppose. I was wanting it to end faster than it did, but I couldn't say I loathed it. It's just that writing about it makes me realise just how bad it really was.

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