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Margaret Drabble, The Red Queen (New York: Harcourt, 2004, $24.00, 334 pages, 0-151-01106-0)Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


Margaret Drabble’s novel The Red Queen is overly-ambitious. Readers familiar with Drabble’s oeuvre and writing style will find little here that is new, while readers new to Drabble, perhaps enraptured by the description on the book jacket (“beautifully told and ingeniously constructed”), might be disappointed. The Red Queen is very similar to Drabble’s 1991 novel The Gates of Ivory. Much of the text is unfathomable and riddled with somewhat wearisome characters, and the reader does not identify with the characters. This identification is crucial in a novel that largely relies on pathos, and the absence of identification is damning.

The plot is as such: Scholar Barbara Halliwell, a London transplant visiting at Oxford, mysteriously receives the centuries-old autobiography of Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong (usually referred to as Hong throughout the novel) in her mail. Halliwell reads the text in its entirety during her subsequent plane ride to a conference insurprise, surpriseSouth Korea. Upon arrival in Seoul, Barbara, the pure, good Westerner, is immediately confused and terrified by the foreign, alien Orient. Drabble has her putative heroine make a daring albeit disastrous solo foray into the streets of Seoul only to become disoriented by the locals and their customs. Of course by the time this happens the reader is familiar with Halliwell’s penchant for foolish and counterintuitive actions, as she has already picked up the wrong luggage at the airport. Coincidentally, the person whose luggage she has retrieved, Dr. Oo Hoi-Chang, a neurologist, is staying at her hotel, on the same floor. So gracious is Dr. Oo that he readily agrees to make the trek to and from the airport with the luckless Dr. Halliwell to ensure she gains purchase on her belongings. Of course, Dr. Oo is invited into the narrative mostly for convenience’s sake, as his skills as an MD come into play towards the end. But even as a character of convenience, Drabble fails to really craft him as a believable character, a concern that extends to many of the non-Western individuals in The Red Queen. Dr. Oo is meant to serve, a role he all too eagerly takes on at several points during this novel.

Naturally, Dr. Oo could never act as a love interest for Dr. Halliwell. That role is taken by Jan van Jost, the Armani-wearing, brilliant (white) sociologist. The fact that van Jost is married does not deter Halliwell from her lustful and ultimately successful pursuit of him. That the marriage is a loveless one, as it is described by van Jost, is reason enough for Halliwell not to regret their conference-long dalliance. The requisite drama ensues and the reader is intended to wonder if Halliwell will return to her demanding and unsatisfying university life in England or if the trip to South Korea has somehow revealed different, perhaps more exotic, possibilities for her future.

Prior to even meeting Dr. Halliwell, the reader is treated to 152 pages of a version of the Crown Princess’s memoir that Halliwell receives in the post. This account is taken from the true life court memoirs of Lady Hong. Writing in the Prologue, Drabble observes “I have turned her story into a novel, of a kind” (ix). Drabble includes a bibliography of, and explanatory note on, sources at the end of the text. Readers might be encouraged to seek out the original documents.    

The Lady Hong characterized in Drabble’s text is a mildly-engaging creation. Her journey from modest beginnings to the role of the much-scorned (and titular) red queen does hold its share of interest. Of particular note is the often tumultuous relationship Lady Hong has with her husband, Prince Sado (if the name calls to mind sadomasochism, the reader is on the right track).

The reader is never fully sure of who is speaking in this novel. A telling moment occurs in the middle of Lady Hong’s (?) recitation when she (?) states:  “I find I do not know whether to aim for suspense or simplicity at this point in my narrative” [76]. It’s almost as if one of Drabble’s notes to herself made its way into the narrative. Such a statement reinforces the desire in the reader for a more precise recitation; one that will, at least, leave no doubt as to who is speaking in the text. Drabble’s numerous and intrusive parenthetical emendations throughout the novel add to the confusion. A notable case in point occurs on page 240 where there is a parenthetical emendation that does not end. Drabble’s Lady Hong and Dr. Halliwell are too much alike. Comparing Drabble’s Prologue with the discourse of either of the two protagonists is revealing because of the unambiguous similarities in syntax and style. While the style could certainly be that a Korean Crown Princess from a few hundred years ago, of an English professor from contemporary London and of an English novelist creating those characters, their respective grammatical flourishes are far too similar, stretching the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief almost to breaking point.

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