The Red Queen is a novel split in two. The first half is a narrative written by the ghost of an actual 18th century Korean princess, Lady Hyegyŏng. The second half follows a modern British academic, Dr. Barbara Halliwell.
“Lady Hong” relates her difficult life as the girl chosen at the age of nine to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado. This role is already a perilous one, and she and her parents are terrified. It is made more terrifying, though, by the fraught relations between Prince Sado and his demanding father King Yŏngjo.
When it slowly becomes apparent that Prince Sado is mentally disturbed and somewhat dangerous, his wife’s life becomes even more one of stress and fear. The princess’s story eventually builds to the climax of her husband’s horrible death.
The Crown Princess’s story is interrupted occasionally by the comments of her ghost, who provides an acrid note informed by writings of thinkers like Voltaire and Freud. Obviously, this ghost has been doing a little reading since she died. I found these interjections odd, but they did little to disturb the flow of what was a fascinating story.
Then I got to Barbara’s half of the book. Barbara has received the princess’s memoirs anonymously and takes them along with her on a trip to an academic conference in South Korea. The ghost makes clear that she sees Barbara as a host whose purpose is to extend her legacy. Barbara is fascinated by the memoir and goes to visit some of the settings of the princess’s life, but she is also engaging in an affair with a famous Dutch sociologist who is the keynote speaker for the conference.
Here is where I thought the narrative broke down. Despite the occasional presence of the ghost and some similarities of taste and experience between Barbara and the ghost, I felt that there was only a flimsy connection between the two halves of the novel. And I wasn’t really interested in Barbara and her fascination with Jan Van Jost.
Additionally, the second half is narrated by some sort of pixie-like guardian angels who have no apparent role. What’s wrong with third-person limited? She’s writing in that anyway with an occasional lapse into second person plural. This seems like a pointless device that becomes even more wink-wink when Drabble introduces herself as a minor character. So, with a little sleight-of-hand, the novel becomes postmodern, but it does not contain any of the cleverness of technique and approach of other postmodern novels I’ve read. This novel is introduced as a tragicomedy, but I didn’t find it comic. Whimsical, perhaps, ironic, certainly.