The library chucked this book out and sold it for 10p, and that alone would have been enough to make me take it home (I rescued several other books that day), but Margaret Drabble has been on my to-read list ever since one of my university lecturers declared her important, and the book is pretty, and I’m a sucker for historical fiction. It was set to be a major win, or a real disappointment.
The story is split into three parts: The first part is the memoir of a Korean Crown Princess from the 18th century, whose life was determined by court restrictions, intrigue and the demise of her husband, the Crown Prince. In a twist that might not sit well with readers who like their historical fiction historic, she tells her story posthumously, looking back and analysing her life from a 20th century view point. This takes some getting used to, and disrupts her narrative. (She not only uses the incredibly frustrating “which we will soon see” device to bring the plot to a near-standstill, but tries to explain her husband’s madness with modern vocabulary and ideas.) It becomes clear that this ghost narrator is looking for a modern “vessel” to take an interest in her story and keep it alive. This vessel turns out to be Dr Barbara Halliwell, a middle-aged academic who travels to a conference in South Korea and becomes enthralled with the memoir and its author. The third part then tries to bring the story into postmodernity.
Despite the many unexpected and postmodern elements of the novel, The Red Queen could have still brought the story full circle, with Barbara solving a textual riddle, clearing the Crown Prince’s name or sinking into madness herself. But Margaret Drabble had other plans for her novel, and the words “A Transcultural Tragicomedy” on the title page should be a warning to readers who expect a neat wrapping-up of both stories. I have read a few reviews on goodreads, and most of them were negative, criticising the seemingly unconnected stories and expressing a dislike for Babs Halliwell. And while I, for once!, couldn’t quite get into the historical bit, I thought the modern part was brilliant. It is a tragicomedy, and I haven’t really come across many of those lately. Babs is a complicated woman, with a tragic past and a familiar-sounding mix of self-confidence, pride even, and self-doubt. Although seemingly narrated by the guardian angels of the Princess’s story (just go with it), her story is the part of the novel that comes alive. It’s a strange story of a very ill-fated love affair in an completely alien land, with a very vague connection to the first part of the book. Although the last pages try to make that connection, it feels a bit laboured. The writing is beautiful though, and some of the utterances and descriptions of Babs’ lover made me laugh, they were so improbable and over-the-top, but as a tragicomedy, they are genius.
I can see how The Red Queen can leave you feeling cheated and annoyed. It’s a strange book that takes even stranger paths to get its message across. I don’t know if I even got the message (there is a lot of potential for discussion about transculturalism, postmodernism, memory, age, feminism, loneliness, madness and literature, which explains why my professor loved Margaret Drabble), but I loved going along with the story. To me, in a way, it all made perfect sense.