The Red Queen
What a daring strategy for a novelist! In Margaret Drabble’s new novel, the first half is told in the voice of Crown Princess Hyegyong. She gives us her memoirs, and has quite a tale to tell. In 1749, at the age of ten, she married the troubled Crown Prince of Korea, and although her time predated the term “paranoid schizophrenic,” Lady Hyegyong paints a picture of a court paralyzed by its own etiquette, existing at the mercy of its ruler’s strange and violent urges. The Crown Prince’s life and terrible death can be recounted with such clear intelligence and cool irony only at a distance of two hundred years.
With such a dramatic, compelling story, it may come as a surprise that the second half of the novel concerns Barbara Halliwell, a contemporary British woman attending an academic conference in modern Seoul. Having established a plot and narrator of some quality, Margaret Drabble appears to start over with someone else, doing something entirely different. It’s a bold endeavor, for it would be very easy to disappoint readers drawn into Lady Hyegyong’s world. The Crown Princess has reached out to Barbara Halliwell, attracted by certain tragedies they have in common. The revelation of their burdens, whose weight and suffering are unaltered by time or culture, binds together the novel’s two halves. This is a novel of impressive emotional complexity, requiring the illumination of both the past and the present.