Review of The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

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Book Review of The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble’s latest novel is a complex, scholarly account of power and madness in the Royal Court of 18th century Korea, and passion and academia in modern day Seoul. It’s very much a novel of two halves, divided into two distinct sections, Ancient and Modern Times. And while in its mingling of past and present it contains definite echoes of AS Byatt’s Possession, it actually feels far fresher in tone and has far more in common with David Mitchell’s inventive and compelling Ghostwritten. 

The Korean Crown Princess wants to be remembered. An intelligent woman, somewhat ahead of her time, she kept detailed journals of her troubled years within the palace compound in Seoul, of the descent into insanity and subsequent death of her husband Prince Sado.

Though fascinating, there is something rather chilly and matter of fact about this first section, it is difficult to warm to and peppered with distinctly contemporary references to “neurotransmitters” and “obsessive compulsive tendencies” which are more than a little jarring. These have been included to emphasise the fact that the “Red Queen” is looking back on her life from a vantage point of some two centuries after her death, eager to find a suitable envoy for her life’s narrative, eager not to be forgotten. 

The woman she has selected for this task, Dr Barbara Halliwell is an Oxford academic on her way to Seoul for a conference. Her own husband has succumbed to mental illness and perhaps because of this Barbara Halliwell feels a connection with the Crown Princess’ tale. She uses her time in the South Korean capital to visit the Princess’ historical home but finds her journey complicated by her growing friendship with world renowned sociologist Jan van Jost. 

The Red Queen is a fascinating novel, about history and legacies, about the need to record our lives, the need to be remembered. Instead of a mere (impeccably researched) retelling of the Red Queen’s story Drabble has opted for something infinitely more inventive, intelligently mixing in elements of the postmodern and even of the supernatural. It’s a daring approach that more often than not pays off. Occasional narrative tactics fall flat – the other-worldly voice sometimes wavers – but this is by far a successful experiment. 

Custom dictated that while she was alive the Crown Princess must lead a highly sheltered life but her intelligence ensured that she survived all those around her; Dr Halliwell is large, ungainly woman, with considerable tragedy in her past, but when it comes down to it she proves herself a suitable envoy for the Red Queen’s memory. The Red Queen begins impressively and is a consistently pleasurable read, an unceasingly engaging tale of two highly intelligent, educated women separated by centuries but united in a common goal, to preserve the memories of both themselves and those they have loved.

Further Information
ISBN: 0670915238
ISBN-13: 9780670915231
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: 26/08/2004
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 368

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