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 in—surprise, surprise—South 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” . 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.