The Court Dancer
By Kyung-Sook Shin. Tr. by Anton Hur
Aug. 2018. 368p. Pegasus, $25.95 (9781681777870)
Man Asian Literary Prize–winning Shin (The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, 2015) alchemizes a brief
mention in a French diplomat’s book about his turn-of-the-century Korean tenure into a gorgeous epic that seamlessly combines history and fiction to create a hybrid masterpiece. In 1888, France’s first official legate to Korea, Victor Collin de Plancy, arrives in Seoul and falls in love at first word, a single exchange of “Bonjour” with Yi Jin, a revered traditional dancer of the Joseon Dynasty (Korea’s final royal court). Blinded by obsession, Victor dares to ask the emperor for her unprecedented release to accompany him back to France. 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. Originally published in Korea in 2007 to best-selling success and smoothly Anglophoned by Anton Hur in his translated-novel debut, the court dancer’s latest journey west should command substantial, eager audiences.
— Terry Hong