Yi Jin, the protagonist of Kyung-Sook Shin’s lushly written The Court Dancer, is not just star-crossed in love. It seems like she’s star-crossed with history. As a court attendant to Empress Myeongseong, Yi Jin is witness to the turmoil Korea faced as it opened its borders to foreign powers. She was trained to be a dancer and lady of the court in the court’s final years and, because she is a court lady, she has little choice but to follower her king and queen’s directives until the bitter end. The Court Dancer is one of the most melancholy love stories I’ve read in a long time.
We meet our protagonist just as she is sailing away from Korea—she is being sent to France along with the departing French legate as his fiancée—before circling back to hear the story of how Yi Jin ended up on that steamship. As an orphan, Yi Jin didn’t have a lot of options. It was pure luck that she ended up being adopted by a woman with connections to the Queen. Her memory and personality earn Yi Jin a place at the court as a favored companion. Yi Jin’s luck unfortunately sours when the Queen hears a fortune teller’s warning that Jin might catch the king’s eye. The fact that the French legate falls in love with Jin seems like it might be a good thing, but he is clearly more in love with Jin than she is with him. To be blunt, the legate seems to be experiencing some serious Asiaphilia. He collects Jin the same way he collects Korean books and celadon.
The Court Dancer follows Jin as she travels to France and back, while the increasing political violence in Korea begins to pull down the monarchy. There is a surprising amount of plot, description of settings and places, and character development in this novel. It feels like it’s about 200 more pages than it actually is. The book is not at all slow; it just feels like an incredibly rich reading experience. Jin, as a character, benefits from all the attention. We see Jin’s deep, self-sacrificing loyalty to the Empress, as well as the people she grew up with. Loyalty, even to the point of death, is an important part of this novel, frequently referenced by the appearance of the legate’s Jindo, a breed of dog that will only bond with one person and is rumored to mourn their masters if their masters die. In this book, we witness what happens when Jin and the Jindo are given away to people who do not understand that the “gift” really means that Jin and the Jindo are supposed to be cared for by their “masters” even as they are servants.
Because she is an orphan and because of her four years spent in France, Yi Jin often feels like a homeless outsider. There is a powerful scene in the novel when the legate takes Jin to the Louvre. She comments to him that it seems wrong for the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace to be in Paris when they belong on the Greek islands where they were found. The legate remarks with typical imperialist paternalism that the statues will be better cared for where they are now than if they had been left. Yet, the legate treats these statues and his Korean collection as trophies and curiosities. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Jin’s costume and motions in her court dancers. Jin’s battle for identity reflects her country’s battle for independence from China, Japan, and the other foreign powers. Where does Korea belong? Where does Jin belong?
The Court Dancer places more focus on Yi Jin than on the politics, so readers may want to spend some time on Wikipedia if they’re not familiar with the history. To be honest, the focus on Jin’s heart-wrenching story instead of politics (at least until very near the end of the book) might frustrate readers. We seem to only learn about events in retrospect. Not only do we learn about them in retrospect, but the politics are very fleetingly described while paragraphs are spent on Jin’s feelings and surroundings. That said, if readers want an in-depth story about a person in a place and time that doesn’t often show up in English language fiction, The Court Dancer is a beautiful if sorrowful read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.