...[an] atmospheric, tragic novel ... Sorrow threads itself through the pages of The Court Dancer, yet there is a richness both to the period and the narrative as beautiful as any silk fan. Kyung-Sook Shin has become one of South Korea's most popular authors, and for good reason. Her deep understanding of the subtleties of the human heart effortlessly crosses borders and informs her portrait of a different place and a faraway time.
...Orphaned but adoringly raised by a royal attendant’s sister, coddled since childhood by the queen, taught French by a missionary-priest, Jin leaves Korea and settles in Paris. Her new life provides unimagined social, literary, even commercial opportunities, but the relentless exotification of her very person emphasizes her growing alienation. Her return home is bittersweet, as she’s treated like a foreigner, but events turn horrific when she’s caught in the violent Japanese takeover of the Joseon court ... The Court Dancer’s latest journey west should command substantial, eager audiences.
Inspired by the true story of a late-19th-century court dancer, Shin’s novel explores themes of exoticism, assimilation and identity ... The novel delves into major historical events, including 1884’s Gapsin Coup and the Imo rebellion in 1882, while the power struggle between China and Japan for influence over Korea looms in the background. By placing Korean history beside a Western narrative, Shin highlights the disparity between Europe and the more isolated Asian nation. At its core, The Court Dancer examines what countries lose in identity in exchange for technological advancement.
Yi Jin finds herself at the heart of the diplomatic, aristocratic, and artistic circles of Paris in the Belle Époque, writing her detailed observations of Paris life in unsent letters to Queen Min, embroidering fans to be sold at the Bon Marché department store, and spending time in the company of writer Guy de Maupassant – playing chess, going for walks, and even visiting the Paris morgue (a popular 19th century tourist destination) ... In The Court Dancer, Shin Kyung-sook offers a rich and detailed look at 19th century France and Korea though the eyes of Yi Jin. Jin is a keen observer of everything around her ... Shin’s novel has a power that stems from the idea that, in the whirlwind of grand, worldly events, sometimes, the smallest, most unpredictable things can change the course of a life. The book is a fascinating woven account of Jin’s and Korea’s simultaneous navigation through the final years of the Korean Empire.