Magazine article The Spectator

A Foreign Country Is the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

A Foreign Country Is the Past

Article excerpt

A foreign country is the past Margaret Forster

ONE THOUSAND CHESTNUT TREES by Mira Stout Flamingo, 16.99, pp. 324

This novel is a history lesson. It is a history lesson of the best kind, lucid and concerned with emotions as well as facts, but it is a history lesson all the same. It might be salutary, before reading it, to jot down all you know about Korea, including what kind of image you find you have of it. And then, if you are shamed by your relative ignorance, as I was, you will appreciate why this novel needs to be read.

It begins as it does not intend to go on. Anna is an artist in modern Manhattan ... enough said? We get the late 20th-century scene, wittily recorded if familiar, but just when this looks like being the usual tale the history starts to unfold. Anna has an American father and a Korean mother with whom she does not get on too well. More and more she feels she suffers, thanks to her mother, from a shadow over herself, a giant Eastern spectre she has resisted acknowledging all her life. She was always irritated that her mother was Korean and never wanted to be reminded of the family culture she left behind when she fled the country in the 1950s. But then an uncle came to America from Korea and lived with Anna's family for a while. After he had gone back Anna began to think of him as a kind of drawbridge which she could use. So she goes to Korea.

At this point, the history lesson begins in earnest, but in the words not of Anna but of her mother, who has lived through the worst parts of Korea's horrific 20th-century experience - its annexation by Japan, its two wars, its mass migrations and its partitioning. She has seen her paternal grandfather lose all his estates and then face humiliation at the hands of the Japanese. She has seen her father lose his post as a politician and go into hiding. …

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