In the prologue to her new novel, Margaret Drabble admits her debt to a volume of Korean court memoirs two centuries old. Seduced by the true story she read there, Drabble decided to transform it into fiction, because, as she tells readers more than once, "borrowing is what novelists do." The haunting voice in The Red Queen is that of a Crown Princess of Korea who survived all manner of palace intrigue to write her very odd memoirs. As the princess puts it, "I have been dead now for 200 years, but I have not been idle. I have been rethinking my story."Armed with posthumously acquired psychological terms, Crown Princess Hyegyong describes her father-in-law as "what you would now call neurotic," with "several obsessive-compulsive disorders," and her husband Sado as probably "a paranoid schizophrenic." As you might guess, hers was not an easy life. The reader experiences how claustrophobic court life became for this trapped, bright woman married at age nine to a child-husband who would go tragically mad.
In part two of the novel, we meet Babs Halliwell, a less-than-stellar scholar finishing a grant at Oxford. She's about to attend a conference in Korea when she receives the princess' book as an anonymous gift and reads it on the plane. Parallels to Halliwell's own life a crazy husband, a dead first child, an attraction to the color red draw her to the tale. In Korea, she visits places where the princess once walked and feels her spirit. A subplot involving the adoption of a Chinese girl and the cameo appearance of a character named Margaret Drabble enliven the story. Drabble's portrait of the middle-aged Halliwell, with sporadic worries about her size and her waning sexual attractions, is often hilarious. Her romantic liaison with a famous scholar at the conference leads to an unexpected climax. A delicate study of the female experience, The Red Queen is sure to delight.
Anne Morris lives in Austin, Texas.