Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

This is this month's book for one of my book clubs.

'When I was a little child, I pined for a red silk skirt'

So begins The Red Queen - the tale of how a young girl in eighteenth century Korea is plucked from obscurity to be consort to the Crown Prince. Though inhabiting a jade, silk and jewelled world, the Crown Princess must also contend with the murderous impulses of her husband Sado who is touched by madness.

Two hundred years later, the Crown Princess's story has a deep and far-reaching effect on Dr Babs Halliwell, an academic on her way to a conference in South Korea. Haunted by the Red Queen's ghost, Babs feels that she must do something to keep her story alive...but what is it?

This is a classic case of being attracted to a book by it's cover. The one at the top of this post was the one that I ended up getting, but when it first came out the cover below is the one that was used, and everytime I walked past the book on the shelves I would stop and look at it, and think about buying it! I held off too long and ended up with the less exciting cover! Oh well!

The novel is rather strange in its format. It is made up of three parts. The first is labelled Ancient times, the second, Modern Times and then the third is Postmodern times. There are no other breaks in the novel - no chapter breaks at all which I don't really like. The main reason for not liking this format is because when I am reading, particularly at night, I like to set myself goals, for example one more chapter or when I get to the end of chapters divisible by 5 or whatever. They make for natural breaks to put the books down at and when they are not there I can't help but feel that I would start at the wrong point.

It is also rather strange in terms of the perspective. We first meet the Crown Princess when she is in the form of a ghost like creation, having been dead for over 200 years but she is speaking from current times so there are references to events that have happened both in her actual life and then references to things that she has learned since she was dead, including to compare herself with others from her time like Catherine the Great of Russia.

She tells us of her beginnings - the book blurb above suggests from obscurity - as the daughter of government officials it may have been a surprise that she was chosen as the bride of the Crown Prince but it wasn't completely unexpected. However, instead of getting more freedom as a member of royalty, she instead moves into a world of luxury where her movements are restricted more than she would have expected. She is married to Crown Prince Sado at 9 years of age, but the two children spend the first several years playing together, but eventually the marriage is consumated and life settles into a pattern - a pattern that is dictated by the King's whims and favours, with that position changing continuously. After her first child dies, it becomes clear that all is not well with her husband though and as time progresses it becomes more and more obvious, until he becomes murderous and rebellious leading to terrible consequences.

When we get to the second part of the novel, Dr Babs Halliwell is travelling to South Korea to give a talk to a medical conference. She too knows something of having a mentally unstable husband, of losing a child and other correlations that are drawn between the two major characters. Babs reads the story of the Crown Princess whilst on the plane and is fascinated by the story. After a mix up with her suitcase, Babs meets an expat Korean doctor who then acts as her guide and takes her to the palaces where the Princess would have lived. She also meets the main speaker for the conference, Dutchman Jan van Jost, and begins an unlikely relationship and brings about another unlikely relationship with far reaching consequences for her life.

The Crown Princess's main aim during the book is to have her story told, to continue to keep people aware of her life, and so there is a feeling that there are almost spirits guiding Babs towards all different actions. Towards the end though the Crown Princess begins to think that she has chosen her vessel unwisely, but in the Postmodern section the novel takes a twist that brings the aim to its conclusion. This was however done in a way that I found quite strange. I've just realised that I can't change the colour so that this is blank so just be aware that this is a spoiler below.


The author inserts herself into the story, becoming friends with Babs, and thus being introduced to the story of the Crown Princess and I guess getting the inspiration to write this novel. I can't think of many other novels where the author becomes almost a character in the story and to be frank I found it quite disturbing.

*****End SPOILER*****

Overall this was an interesting story about a place that I have very little awareness about.

Rating 3.5/5

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