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The Red Queen (2005)

The Red Queen (2005)
3.17 of 5 Votes: 1
0771029071 (ISBN13: 9780771029073)
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The Red Queen (2005)
The Red Queen (2005)

About book: A very strange book, consisting of two separate parts which really didn't seem to go together at all. In the first part, the ghost of the Red Queen tells her story from the afterlife. The manner of the telling is disjointed, but the style fits the subject matter: the queen, or “Lady Hong”, is trying to tell us things that are painful for her to remember, and that she never fully understood anyway. This part of the book is based on Lady Hong’s actual diaries and makes for fascinating reading. The second part (approximately two-thirds) of the book I found bizarre and completely unsatisfying. It opens with a very sexual, but not remotely sexy, description of Dr Babs Halliwell lying naked on her bed the night before she flies to Korea for a conference. One of the items she has packed to read on the flight is a copy of Lady Hong's diary (in English translation), which she has inexplicably received, supposedly via Amazon, though she cannot discover who sent it to her. As she reads the book on the flight, we see the ghost of Lady Hong watching over her “chosen messenger”, practically forcing her to read it. Yet as the book goes on, this element is lost. Dr Halliwell strikes up a friendship with a Korean delegate who takes her to see the various palaces, etc, associated with Lady Hong, but her attention is divided as she begins a sordid three-night affair with the conference's star speaker (which is, apparently, not sordid because it lasts three nights, not just one or two!). Events in the aftermath of the conference are thoroughly peculiar and completely irrelevant to the story of Lady Hong.The book might have worked had the story kept its focus on Babs's exploration of Korea, and had she continued to research Lady Hong after her return. The affair with the Dutchman (who dies on the third night) and her subsequent adoption of a Chinese orphan jointly with his widow, seems an unnecessary, pointless and downright unbelievable complication (“Hi, I was sleeping with your husband when he died. Let’s adopt a baby together.” Eh?). I found Babs to be an thoroughly unlikable character and a very poor choice of messenger. Lady Hong presumably chose her because she was an educated woman who, like herself, had lost a child in infancy and whose husband was mentally ill, but the emotional bond that this should have formed between them was entirely missing. On her return to England, she seems to forget Lady Hong for years, until one day she has a chance encounter with...yes, Margaret Drabble. Ms Drabble had some very interesting material on her hands with the diary of Lady Hong. It's a great pity that she didn't just stick to that material, instead of inventing a nonsensical tale about how she came by it.

I have finished it - I am rather startled I did finish it - but I still do not know what to make of it.I chose to read this book because it was historical fiction, a setting about which I know nothing but intrigues me, and because I've always intended to read a book by Margaret Drabble.My conclusion is that Drabble writes far better contemporary than historical fiction. For this is a book in two distinct parts, the first in the eighteenth century from the POV of the 'Red Queen' (who incidentally never becomes a queen - why not call the book The Red Princess?), and the second in the present, from the POV of a woman academic. Even though the subject matter of the first half was compelling, I found Drabble's narration of it unsatisfactory. Did the narrator's tendency to hop backward and forward in time reflect the writing style of the real princess? It seems the only possible excuse. Then there were inconsistencies - was the mad Prince terrified of jade or not? The second half of the book was far more pedestrian in subject matter, yet I found Drabble's vivid writing quite gripping. The difference then between the first and the second half of the novel was in this degree of vividness-in-writing. I don't feel that Drabble truly got under the skin of the Crown Princess - but she relayed the thoughts and actions of her second narrator, Babs, wonderfully well.
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I picked up my copy of THE RED QUEEN several years ago per the suggestion of Peter Boxall's list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, helpfully spreadsheeted by the Internet. Unfortunately, somewhere between 2003 an 2010, he changed his mind (!) and THE RED QUEEN got the boot to make way for new selections. This still makes me really angry if I think about it too hard, as I was doing a few days ago when I saw it on my shelf and decided to read it anyway, read it proudly and indignantly! Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! I did read it, and pretty quickly. I see what other reviewers were saying when they wrote that feels a little like two novellas put side to side. One is a first-person account of an 18th-century Korean Crown Princess, who tells about court intrigue and her marriage to Prince Sado, who went spectacularly crazy in the way only royalty can and was then executed in a terrible way by his own father. I really enjoyed this section, I think in large part because of my own ignorance about Korean history, despite having actually taken a course in Korean history Back in the Day that Was Also Known as College. So ... thanks, ignorance! The princess argues her case and asks for forgiveness for her role in what would come to be known as the Imo Incident, and she starts off so gracefully and quietly that I wasn’t quite expecting the magnitude of the prince’s crazy or his fate. I was sort of expecting “Oh my husband, he talks to the castle cats and asks them about the weather.” Not, “Oh, my husband, sometimes he interrupts my embroidery by walking in with a eunuch’s head on a spike, but we do our best to keep it hush hush.” Yikes! But it does make for riveting reading. The narrative is a little disjointed, and I wish there would have been a little bit more of an effort to form it into scenes, but I suppose it is difficult being a ghost AND thinking about ease of storytelling, so it is okay. But after the Princess finishes her tale, we jump forward 200 years and change to follow academic Babs “Boring” Halliday as she lands in Korea for a conference on ... something. Medical ethics, maybe. A strange benefactor has sent her an old translation of the Crown Princess’s memoirs, and she reads them on the plane and is enraptured, because hey! She also has a crazy husband and likes the color red. Small world. When she lands in Korea, Babs meets a doctor who is well-versed in Korean history, and she ends up going to visit the palace and the princess’s burial place while also having an impressively un-scintillating affair with a fellow respected academic who (view spoiler)[ actually dies of the boredom and/or a heart-attack (hide spoiler)]
I found this book compelling on two fronts: I was interested in the time and place (Korea, mid 1700s) and I was interested in the author's story-telling. The first half of the novel is told in first person through the eyes of the title character, the ghost of a noble-born Korean woman who married the crown prince of her kingdom while she was alive. While telling her story, she 'haunts' a present day woman who appears to be the thinly disguised author. To what end the ghost haunts is not clearly revealed. The purported reason seems to be 'telling her story.'The ghost's story is compelling, but why do it this way?The second have of the novel takes an omniscient POV as it follows around the 'haunted' woman. During this part of the novel, the author, Margaret Drabble, does two things I would think was beyond a professional and successful writer: She sometimes has entire paragraphs in an interrogatory mode as her character analyzes her situation. All these questions are probably designed to raise the readers' tension, but for me it struck a histrionic note, like some teenage girls do when seeking to dramatize their lives. The second thing the author does is insert herself into the novel as a character. In case you miss it, she refers to herself as a writer and uses her own name for the character, probably attempting to lend verisimilitude to the novel.I have to say I found the novel nonetheless compelling. The story of the Red Queen is worthy, the story-telling brave. I may read more about the historical character, but I don't think I want to read more Drabble.
Lorraine Coleman
This book is well written and the premise is very interesting. However, the construct of the book constantly takes the reader away from the flow of the story. It is an interesting idea, to have a 200 year old ghost to tell not only her story but the story of the modern day women in the second half of the book, but she keeps too much of an emotional distance in much of the story and also interrupts the reader with too many modern concepts. It was jarring and took me out of the story. In the secon
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