With her usual deftness and clarity, Drabble (The Seven Sisters, 2002, etc.) crosses cultures and centuries, linking the story of an 18th-century Korean Crown Princess with that of a British scholar attending a conference in Seoul.
“Ancient Times” presents the Yi period memoir of the Crown Princess: she’s married at ten; consummates the marriage at 15; loses her first-born in infancy; has a second son, who will become king, and two daughters; watches her husband succumb to madness, slaughter his concubine, and be killed by his own father; and somehow survives into her 70s before dying, to watch over future centuries with curiosity and a wish to have her story revived. “Modern Times” follows the trail of British scholar Babs Halliwell, 42, who travels to a conference in Seoul, carrying an anonymously sent copy of the Crown Princess’s memoirs. Reading the memoir on the flight, Dr. Halliwell finds herself entranced, supernaturally enchanted. “The princess is taking her over, bodily and mentally . . . . The princess has entered her, like an alien creature in a science-fiction movie, and she is gestating and growing within her.” Dr. Halliwell, like the Crown Princess, has a mad husband and lost her firstborn to a genetic illness. She craves a red silk blouse, scarlet stockings—as the Crown Princess once craved a red silk skirt. A Korean doctor takes her to visit the Crown Princess’s gardens and other key sites. She tells the story of the Crown Princess to the conference star, Jan van Joost, which leads to a three-day romantic liaison. Jan asks her advice about adopting a Chinese baby girl with his much younger and eccentric Spanish-Swedish third wife, then dies of a heart attack. The third part, “Postmodern Times,” is a mysterious and mostly effective melding of all the story’s strands.
Engrossing and provocative: a scarlet narrative thread reminds us how magical the novel can be in telling stories and lives.