From Publishers Weekly
In her 16th novel, Drabble exhibits her characteristic ironic detachment in an elegantly constructed meditation on memory, mortality, risk and reward. Dr. Babs Halliwell, a 40-ish academic on sabbatical at Oxford, receives an anonymous gift on the eve of her departure for a conference in Seoul: a copy of the 18th-century Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong's memoir. In the crown princess's tumultuous time, women of the court could exercise power only through men. But the sly, coquettish and charmingly unreliable princess not only outlived her mad husband but also survived her brothers, her sons and innumerable palace plots. Her story and her spirit all but possess Dr. Halliwell, whose tragic personal losses and highly ritualized professional life cleverly and subtly mirror those of the crown princess. Upon her arrival in Seoul, Dr. Halliwell begins to come a bit unhinged as pieces of her long-submerged past threaten to catch up with her at last. "These things," she observes, "have long, long fuses." She innocently takes up with a generous Korean doctor, who becomes her tour guide in the jarringly foreign city. Soon, she's also flattered into embarking on a brief but intense affair with a famous and charismatic Dutch anthropologist who's busy grappling with ghosts of his own. Nimbly jumping across time and around the globe, Drabble artfully stitches together the disparate strands of both women's lives with "a scarlet thread... of blood and joy." The voices of the dead reach out to the living, where the ancient and the modern "pass through one another, like clouds of bees, like distant galaxies... like the curving spirals of a double helix."
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Drabble read JaHyun Kim Haboush's translation of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea (1995) and became possessed. Enthralled by the tough-minded memoirist and the crucial phase of Korean history she illuminates, Drabble doesn't simply fictionalize the crown princess' dramatic story, she transforms the royal author into a ghostly, insistent presence who has studied the world closely since her death and who has decided to retell her story in light of all that has transpired in the interim. And so the crown princess--proud, frank, intelligent, discursive, and still wounded by the cruelty of her father-in-law, King Yongjo, and the terrible crimes and suffering of her mad and murderous husband, Prince Sado--recounts her harrowing experiences, matching Anchee Min's historically based Empress Orchid [BKL N 15 03] with her vivid depiction of the claustrophobia and dysfunction of an Asian court, and also offering delectably caustic commentary on the modern world. But there's more. Drabble, a master at constructing two-track, two-epoch tales (The Seven Sisters  brings Virgil into our time), abruptly switches to the present, where the intrepid Dr. Barbara Halliwell, a fetching English academic, reads the crown princess' memoirs on the way to a conference in Seoul, thus inadvertently instigating hilarious, sexy, and suspenseful adventures that reveal curious parallels between her life and that of the Korean princess. Drabble is sleight-of-hand adept at slipping profoundly insightful musings on human nature, history, and social mores into scintillating and all-consuming novels. Donna Seaman
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