Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong speaks from her 200-year-old grave to reveal the true story of her life. Born in 1735, she was pampered as a child to compensate for her destiny in the palace. Her parents suffered depression; the Crown Princess knew at an early age that play was pretend but sorrow was real. Her childhood ended early when her parents entered her into the selection ceremony as a royal bride. The mother of the Crown Prince, Lady Sonhui, favored her and so she was chosen.
The little girl was horrified on her long visits to the palace, where she was petted and fed strange foods, and painted with cosmetics. At home, palace servants attended to her and her parents deferred to her. She wanted to die. Sick with fear on her wedding day, she was married at age ten to Prince Sado, also ten, who called his wife his "little Red Queen" because of her prized red silk skirt. The married children played together, with dolls, kites, a toy horse, and the toy soldiers Sado loved. The marriage was consummated five years later.
The Princess's first son died. Her father-in-law, King Yongjo, was an odd man with many obsessions and insecurities who treated his son, Sado, harshly. He decreed that the couple's second son, Chongjo, was to be groomed to be king because Sado was becoming mentally unstable. As the young mother worried over her beloved son's fate, her husband became madder and madder. Prince Sado blamed his mania on his father's lack of love toward him; his actions were violent and terrifying. Complex court and family maneuvering and catastrophes shaped the Princess's remaining years.
After the princess narrates the balance of her tragic life, the story switches to modern-day England, focusing on Dr. Barbara Halliwell, who appears on the surface to be the opposite of the powerless princess. Babs is puzzled to receive a book of the Korean Crown Princess's memoirs anonymously. She reads the book during her flight to Seoul to attend a conference. As she reads, Babs is astounded at the number of connections and similarities to her own life. Along with other parallels, her own first husband went mad because of his relationship with his father, and her own first son died in infancy. Babs cannot stop thinking about the memoirs.
In Seoul, Babs escapes her conference to search out the places the Crown Princess experienced. Because of her fascination with the Korean princess's life, Babs experiences a significant chapter in her own life --- one that reverberates past her return to London and changes her future drastically.
The surreal yet extremely satisfactory ending includes a surprise appearance by Margaret Drabble herself. A short afterword reinforces the conclusion's mood of circularity and completion. THE RED QUEEN was a bit of a slow start for me (chalk it up to a few too many beach books over the summer), but I was soon ensnared by the haunting plot of this ambitious and unusual ghost story.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2011
The Red Queen