The Court Dancer

Written by Anton Hur (trans.) Kyung-Sook Shin
Review by Susan McDuffie

In 1891 a young French diplomat, on his first trip to the Korean imperial palace, sees a beautiful court lady as he makes his way to his audience with the king. Forgetting protocol, entranced by her loveliness, Victor greets the woman in his native French. She, surprisingly, replies “bonjour,” and Victor falls in love. The woman, one of the Queen’s attendants, is also a renowned court dancer. When Victor sees her next at an official banquet, she performs the Dance of the Spring Oriole, and Victor again forgets himself. All ladies of the Korean court belong to the king but, due to a series of extraordinary circumstances, Jin becomes Victor’s lover and accompanies him to Paris.

Jin’s childhood, her life at the court and later life with Victor in Paris, and her eventual return to Korea play out against the tale of the Korean Joseon dynasty as it struggles to maintain power and independence amidst squabbling international powers. Kyung-Sook Shin weaves an entrancing and emotional story as Yi Jin moves among these different worlds. She is first known as Baby, then later the Lady Attendant Suh. The King gives her the personal name Yi Jin only when she leaves for France with Victor. But who is Yi Jin, really? A dancer? A translator? A Korean court lady? A woman of Paris?

This book, based on a true and little-known incident in Korean history, is a fascinating and lyrical portrayal of a woman and a country at the crossroads of history. Beautifully and evocatively written, the moving and ultimately tragic story of Yi Jin’s life resonates like the melodic sound of the Korean flute and lingers hauntingly in your mind. Highly recommended.