Books: The Marrow Thieves

34649348The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Published September 1, 2017
The market is saturated with dystopian YA novels these days and, like many readers, I’m a little fatigued by the genre, yet Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning The Marrow Thieves is an important and engaging addition to the canon. A rare example of an #ownvoices indigenous author writing speculative fiction, The Marrow Thieves details the hardships faced by characters as they are hunted further and further north with limited resources and fewer people they can trust. This poignant exploration of the struggle to retain culture, oral storytelling tradition, and language against all odds should be read and studied by all young Canadians

Sadly the premise behind this dystopia is not so out there considering Canada’s treatment of indigenous people over the years. In the wake of a world decimated by global warming, where the surviving people have lost the ability to dream, the government turns to its shameful past and revives the residential school system that stripped First Nations members of their language, culture, and families. In a darker twist, white people known as Recruiters capture Indigenous peoples, transport them to these schools, and then harvest their bone marrow, which is used as a remedy for dreams. First Nations members are literally and horrifically reduced to a commodity.

‘Story’, a nightly oral storytelling ritual in which older kids and adults in Frenchie’s found family band gather to hear and remember aspects of their culture and history, fleshes out how the world came to be this way. It’s an ingenious way for Dimaline to both preserve preserve indigenous culture in-story and to deliver exposition in a way that feels organic.

Dimaline’s writing style is lyrical at times, befitting oral storytelling tradition, but also realistic about the way the novel’s largely teenage cast interact with one another. Stray words of The Language (indigenous languages that the younger generation don’t speak) dropped in-text are hoarded and repeated by Frenchie, who views them with an awed regard.

Unlike many YA dystopias, this is a character-driven book where the emphasis is on found family and survival rather than trying to change the world. I loved that the oldest and youngest characters, who could be viewed as a burden on the band’s survival, are actually the beating heart of French’s group. I was invested in the characters, interested in their backstories, and I loved most of the relationships, familial, platonic, and romantic.

Protagonist French (given name Francis), a 16-year-old Métis boy, is believably teenage. Even when there are bigger things at stake he experiences petty jealousy, comparing himself physically to other First Nations characters who he thinks may have caught the eye of Rose, the girl he’s falling in love with. Big-hearted and concerned with the survival of everyone in his band, from the youngest Ri to not-all-there Elder Minerva, he holds a certain survivor’s guilt about being the only member of his immediate family to not be taken by the Recruiters.

Because this is YA, there’s a love interest. Rose does at least get some depth; she’s a dissenting voice who questions the band’s path and wants to take immediate action, but mostly we see her through French’s eyes. A lot is made of her physical beauty, her curls, and round cheeks, and dark skin, and I wound up wishing she’d been fleshed out more.

My favourite character though, was Miigwans. Middle-aged and the leader of the band, he grieves the traumatic loss of his husband, Isaac, to the schools. I love that The Marrow Thieves is not only diverse in terms of representing different First Nations cultures, but that it also features a gay character!

The Marrow Thieves definitely works on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Dimaline handwaves explanations for things in a way that feels more appropriate for a work of magic realism, but nothing in the book lends itself to that genre. It’s a little disconcerting in a book that is otherwise to grounded. The author also has a bad habit of overusing end of chapter foreshadowing in a clunky, unsubtle way that I found irritating:

“neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours”
“I had no way of knowing that things would shift again”
“we didn’t know that he was an animal we had yet to imagine could exist”

You’ve hooked us, just tell the story!

Besides these minor complaints though, I found The Marrow Thieves to be a thought-provoking book about storytelling, language, and how the loss of it removes us from our roots, and love of all kinds. It also has one of the better endings out there. Beautifully rendered through thoughtful, lyrical prose, The Marrow Thieves ends on a hopeful note that lets us know that all is not lost.



Books: Warlight

35657511Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Published June 7, 2018
Warlight is the rare case of a book where I can sum up my experience reading it in a single word. Unfortunately, that word is tedious. There’s no question that Ondaatje can write, but missing from Warlight are character development, an engaging plot, and any sense of tension or conflict. I love eloquent prose, I do, but my primary draws to a book are definitely characters and then plot, so Ondaatje was never going to reel me in with this effort, which is so lacking in both.

Reading Warlight on the heels of John Boyne’s latest, A Ladder to the Sky, I couldn’t help but laugh because the problems I had with Warlight are exactly the ones faced by Boyne’s aspiring author character Maurice. Warlight demonstrates Ondaatje’s talent for prose – it’s poetic, elegant, and a little dreamy – but the story itself is boring. Ostensibly it’s intended as a bildungsroman, where protagonist Nathaniel tries to piece together the truth about his mother after her death through revisiting memories of his unusual childhood in post-war London, but Nathaniel never grows or changes as a result of his experiences so the coming-of-age story falls flat.

This lack of emotional depth or interest extends to the other major and minor characters in the novel. Although characters are associated with intelligence organizations, or have eccentric hobbies and interests, they’re all frankly rather dull. I never connected with Nathaniel and Rachel, their absent mother, or the odd lodgers in their childhood home, or found their relationships engaging. It’s just never clear what Ondaatje is trying to accomplish with this book or why the reader should care.

I picked up Warlight on something of a whim. It was on the Best Bets shelf of my local library, it had been named to the Man Booker longlist, and I’d never read any fiction by Ondaatje before (I read his memoir, Running in the Family, in University) and felt a certain imperative to give such a lauded Canadian author a try. Although my experience was disappointing, I have to echo Rachel’s sentiment about starting with the wrong book. I didn’t get any sense from Warlight of what Michael Ondaatje is capable of and with such an illustrious author I’m sure the answer must be more than this passionless, plodding novel. A few fellow Canadians have recommended In the Skin of a Lion, a book partially set in the city of Toronto, so when I’m prepared to give Ondaatje a second chance, I’ll probably start there.

Books: The Black God’s Drums

38118138The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Published August 21, 2018
Novellas aren’t usually my thing. I like my books brick-sized, the kind of tome that will do a number on your shoulders if you carry it around too much. I can’t say that The Black God’s Drums single-handedly converted me, but it’s certainly a well-paced, enjoyable argument in favour of reading shorter fiction.

Set in 1884 in an alternate United States, where there is an uneasy armistice in the ongoing civil war between the North and South, The Black God’s Drums tells the story of Creeper, a teenage pickpocket with a secret – the Nigerian deity Oya, a goddess of wind and storms, speaks in her head and gifts her certain powers.

The biggest draw here is the worldbuilding. Clark draws us into his alternate steampunk New Orleans with tantalizing morsels about the city and the broader world it exists within (an allusion to ‘General Tubman’ carrying out a guerrilla war on the Confederacy made my eyes light up). This New Orleans is one of few non-aligned territories, so it serves as a transnational port city with ties to both the American mainland and the broader Caribbean. It’s both a place where people from opposing sides mingle, do business, and, mostly, mind their manners, and a place where the African diaspora converges. That ol’ steampunk standby, the airship, is of course present, but a more nefarious steampunk element is seen in drapeto gas, a chemical agent administered through gas masks fitted onto the faces of those still in bondage, which leaves them susceptible to suggestion and unable to resist.

The dialect style of writing Clark employs will not appeal to everyone, but I thought it worked within the multinational context to highlight the diversity of this alternate New Orleans.

Most importantly, this is a novella about resourceful, intelligent, and independent black women saving their sanctuary. Although I wish The Black God’s Drums provided more insight into the gods and goddesses, who are glazed over in the text, I loved the human characters. Fourteen-year-old Creeper reminded me of Sancia in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, which I read earlier this month. They’re both smart, young thieves with a dream… and with a secret. Creeper teams up with airship captain Ann-Marie, a brash Trinidadian smuggler, and a pair of enterprising nuns act as the Q to Creeper and Ann-Marie’s Bond. It’s hard NOT to root for this motley all-female crew!

As much as I loved the glimpses we got of this world, and of the gods, and wanted more, I also recognize that The Black God’s Drums is perfectly paced as it is and doesn’t have enough plot to support a full-sized novel. I still can’t claim to be a great fan of short fiction, but I found the novella, which clocks in at a slim 110 pages, to be a quick and compelling read. Hopefully the author will consider writing additional novellas set in this world and/or following some of the characters, as I believe there is a lot there to explore.


Books: From a Low and Quiet Sea

36906103From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Published March 22, 2018
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some books you can read at the right or wrong time in your life and enjoy that much more or less as a result. I’m convinced that there are also books you can read in a correct and incorrect way. Some books are meant to be devoured; to be absorbed over just a day or two of intense reading, after which you come up for air. From a Low and Quiet Sea is one of those books and I foolishly read it in exactly the wrong way.

From a Low and Quiet Sea reads more like a series of short stories than it does a novel. In order, we’re introduced to Farouk, a man who makes the difficult choice to flee Syria with his wife and daughter in hopes of a better, safer life for his family, Lampy, a young bus driver from a rural Irish town who has recently had his heart broken, and John, an older man who has lived his life in the shadow of his beloved brother’s premature death. Although thematically the stories are connected through a feeling of absence, of loss of something, or someone, dear, they seem to have little in common until the stories cleverly converge in an ending that is both unexpected and rewarding.

The problem with multiple perspectives is that one part is often stronger than the others. Such is the case here, where Farouk’s story is by far the most compelling part of From a Low and Quiet Sea. I was hooked from the first page and read voraciously. While John’s perspective, the only one told in first person (to be more specific, in the style of a confession given to a priest) is also interesting, the stakes and tension are so much lower in Lampy’s rural town that it’s difficult to feel as strongly about the story. Ultimately John and Lampy’s stories never quite measured up to the promise of those early chapters.

The biggest reason to read and love From a Low and Quiet Sea though is the prose. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and this book offers some of the best examples of craftsmanship I’ve read. There’s a melodic, flowing quality to Ryan’s prose which I imagine would lend itself well to an audiobook, yet there’s also, especially in the Lampy sections, that black comedy that I’ve come to expect and adore from Irish writers. Ryan has the rare gift of always seeming to choose exactly the right word to express a thought or emotion, which makes for a really lovely reading experience.

Reading this short (it clocks in at a slim 181 pgs) book over three or four days, it took me longer to make the connections between the stories and to garner meaning from the text.  Like when I foolishly tried to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on a heavily scheduled vacation, I wasn’t as absorbed in or affected by the book as I hoped I would be. I’d consider my reading experience to be more of a 3.5 star one, but I’m 90% sure I would have gotten more out of From a Low and Quiet Sea if I had read it in one sitting, so I’ve rounded up to the 4 stars it most likely deserves. Planning to pick this up? Give it the attention it deserves and settle in for an evening. You won’t regret it.

Stage: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre breaks your heart and then puts it back together again. Deftly adapted for the stage by choreographer Cathy Marston and brought to life by a talented company, Jane Eyre is an overwhelming love story with a feminist slant.

Departing from the Charlotte Bronte novel on which it is based, Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre begins on the moors shortly after Jane has escaped from Thornfield. Jane fights off violent attempts by male ensemble members, who represent her inner demons, to cage her spirit, before she is found by St. John Rivers. The ballet then takes us back through Jane’s memories to her abusive childhood experiences in the Red Room and at Lowood before depicting her burgeoning romance with her mysterious and haunted employer, Mr. Rochester.


Perhaps partially because this is a touring production, the minimalist set design uses few props or furnishings, beyond several chairs, to set the scene, but the gothic atmosphere of the novel is effectively captured through low lighting and neutral-toned costumes. Pops of colour occur in the form of Jane’s pupil, Adele’s, girlish pink dress and Bertha’s red ragged gown, which mirrors the fire she will eventually set.

I can’t say that the score, compiled by Philip Feeney, made much of an impression on me one way or another. Although certainly appropriate for the ballet, it’s a score that didn’t stick with me, unlike some of the more memorable ballet scores, like those of Cranko’s Onegin (selections from Tchaikovsky) or Neumeier’s Nijinsky (music by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsokov, and Shostakovich).


Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language, but with a contemporary edge. Adapting a first person narrative as internal as Jane Eyre into a medium that doesn’t use speech should be a challenge, but Marston makes the transition seem effortless. Arguably one of the greatest accomplishments of Jane Eyre is Jane’s narrative voice as she expresses a feminist desire for agency that still resonates today. Working from source material that offers little in the way of male characters, Marston cleverly uses members of the male ensemble as ‘D-Men’, who represent Jane’s inner demons. The eight D-Men surround Jane in moments of turmoil and she physically fights off their influence, retaining the novel’s early feminist themes.

Jane’s inner struggle to repress her passionate feelings is shown through a repeated symbolic gesture where the ballerina calms herself by pressing a horizontally-held hand down from her heart through her body. I was also struck by a moment with Jane and Rochester where they shake hands with the requisite formality, but the choreography has each dancer duck under the other’s hand and indicate how the handshake has inwardly affected them before they snap back to reality. How I wish Cathy Marston would lend her considerable talents to my beloved National Ballet of Canada!

I’ve seen some criticism that the ballet is quite dark which, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll know is the opposite of a problem for me! I often like my ballet like I like my books – dark and painful – so I loved that about Jane Eyre. Some critics also found the structure confusing. Admittedly if I hadn’t read the synopsis and/or the novel first, I may have been confused by the D-Men, but having done so I thought this technique was quite a clever way of depicting an internal struggle in a medium that doesn’t use words.


In this adaptation, Jane is danced by two different ballerinas. Antoinette Brooks-Daw portrays Young Jane, while Dreda Blow dances Jane as a young woman. Brooks-Daw is immensely sympathetic as the orphaned, maltreated younger heroine. Jane’s childhood is far from idyllic, but Brooks-Daw retains Jane’s characteristic strength of spirit throughout and shows plenty of fire when she retaliates against her cousin John’s [a wonderfully cruel Matthew Koon] physical abuse.

In a subtly affecting performance, Dreda Blow conveys Jane’s strength, intelligence, and the passion she tempers down. She simply breaks your heart along with Jane’s. More than any prior adaptation (yes, even the excellent BBC miniseries starring Toby Stephens) I understood Jane’s attraction to the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. From the moment Javier Torres appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated. Torres is magnetic, portraying Rochester’s irritability, arrogance, and yet his charisma. The chemistry between Jane and Rochester is palpable from their first meeting and only intensifies through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs.

The minor characters are no less excellent. Rachel Gillespie is a buoyant, excitable presence as Adele, Pippa Moore is flightier, younger, and perhaps more comic than the housekeeper, Ms. Fairfax, of the novel, but was lovely to watch nonetheless, and Kiara Flavin imprints herself on our hearts as well as on Jane’s as Helen Burns.

It’s easy to understand why Dance Europe referred to Northern Ballet as boasting “the best dance-actors in the world”. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness such a talented company performing a largely faithful and clever adaptation of the early feminist source material we hold so dear. Jane Eyre undoubtedly ranks among my favourite storytelling ballets, and should the company decide to revive it, I strongly urge even those who have never seen a ballet before to take a chance on it. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.

Photo of Javier Torres and Dreda Blow by Caroline Holden.

Books: Girl Through Glass

25817032Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
Published January 26, 2016
Girl Through Glass ticks most of the boxes necessary to be a compelling read. Sari Wilson’s debut about a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet is told through prose that is by turns elegantly wistful and gritty. Juxtaposing the crime-riddled New York City of the late seventies/early eighties with the beauty and artistry of the world of ballet, the author writes with authority about her subject and constructs believably flawed characters. The problem is there’s nothing very original about her story.

As her parents go through a messy divorce, eleven-year-old Mira, an aspiring ballerina, finds escape in the world of dance, which offers her control and a chance to be seen. She catches the eye of forty-seven-year-old ballet enthusiast Maurice Dupont and he becomes her mentor. The talented young malleable ballerina and the inappropriately older creepy mentor – we all know where this is going.

The problem isn’t one of authenticity. More than a century ago there was sexual trade in ballet dancers that included Vaslav Nijinsky, widely regarded as the greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century. More recently, a horrific story about sexual exploitation of female dancers within the real-life New York City Ballet broke just before I sat down to write this review. I don’t doubt the prevalence of harassment in the dance world, and it doesn’t help that many ballet companies have in their repertoire works where women are abused, raped, and/or die, a fact that is increasingly being noted by arts critics.

My issue is that there are so few works of fiction about the world of ballet and many of them seem to contain the same components:

  • The young, naive prodigy ballerina who is chosen to play an important role in a piece
  • Her sexual harassment by someone in a position of power (usually a patron or director)
  • She experiences some form of mania or breakdown
  • This ends up damaging her physically, psychologically, or both.

Must all ballet stories follow the same path?

For all my negativity about the plot, I did genuinely enjoy reading Girl Through Glass, racing through it in a couple of days. The author trained as a dancer so she writes about ballet with authority and authentically depicts the outward glamour of the Russian-infused ballet world of the late seventies and early eighties. Her use of language is evocative; Wilson uses an unromantic, grimly realistic style when writing about NYC, but her prose soars as she writes about dance and the inner ambitions of her characters.

This is very much a coming-of-age story and Mira is an interesting character to follow, a pre-teen talent who is still discovering her identity. The relationships between characters also ring true, from the way Mira, an oft-ignored girl latches onto Maurice, who glimpses her talent and potential, to her complicated interactions with her parents and even the detached way that the character approaches her friendships.

Ballet is a fascinating subject, so why aren’t there more fictional stories being told about the world of dance? Original stories? Girl Through Glass does what it does extremely well, it just doesn’t offer anything fresh or exciting, covering much of the same ground as the Starz miniseries, Flesh & Bone. Ballet aficionados will enjoy Girl Through Glass for its vividly rendered account of the challenging and competitive world of New York City ballet, but I don’t think there’s enough here to capture the attention of the average reader.


Monthly Wrap-up: July & August

July and August couldn’t have been more different for me in terms of reading. July was a strong month where I may not have read a great deal but I loved what I read. Every one of the five books I finished (1 a re-read) I gave four stars or more! While I finished an extra book in August, my ratings were all over the map. Hopefully September will be a more consistently strong month of reading.


The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin  small 2 half stars + Review
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson  small 3 half stars + Review
Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper  small 4 stars + Review
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni  small 4 stars + Review
Bright We Burn by Kiersten White  small 4 half stars + Review
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg  small 2 half stars + Review

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang  small 4 half stars + Review
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty  small 4 stars + RTC
Now I Rise by Kiersten White (re-read)
Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly  small 4 stars
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan  small 4 stars + Review

Book(s) of the Month(s): The Poppy War and Bright We Burn. R.F. Kuang’s brutal fantasy that draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War featured a ruthless anti-heroine and a compelling plot. Kiersten White’s Bright We Burn brought her Conquerors trilogy to a thoroughly satisfying ending that made sense for all of the characters.

Honourable Mentions: Armistice isn’t quite as strong as the first book in the trilogy, Amberlough, but I still absolutely loved it and I cannot wait to see where the story goes next! The Lightkeepers is so beautifully written and such an atmospheric ode to Agatha Christie that I loved it.

Least Favourite: I gave two books the sub-par 2.5 stars rating in August, but it’s The Court Dancer that takes the title. Confessions of the Fox just wasn’t for me, but I appreciated what it was trying to do. The Court Dancer should have been for me, it just wasn’t well-executed by the author.


Seen on Stage: Summer is traditionally a slower time for theatre in Toronto, perhaps because so many Canadians choose to take vacation time and/or migrate north every weekend to the cottage, but I was kept busy watching and reviewing 15 shows at the Toronto Fringe Festival for My Entertainment World. The way the timing worked out I was working almost full-time hours at a bustling library branch that had just re-opened to the public, then taking transit to watch a few plays, and spending my spare time writing reviews of what I’d just seen. It was a pretty hectic, but fun, week-and-a-half!

Outside of Fringe I saw just two shows in the last few months, both Soulpepper productions. I didn’t always understand Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel about gender roles, but the performances were outstanding and the direction effective. I was more taken with Bed & Breakfast, a new Canadian play about a gay couple who move from Toronto to a picturesque northern Ontario town to set up a B&B after one of them inherits the family home. Actors Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia (a couple in real life) play not just Brett and Drew, but also the inhabitants of the town, who range from an Irish lesbian to a flaky pregnant coffee shop owner. The second-half is stronger than the first act, but it’s a hilarious, moving, and distinctly Canadian play that I really enjoyed.

I reviewed 15 shows total at the Fringe, of which my favourites were Generally Hospital, a sketch comedy revue of skits set at hospitals performed by a hilarious and refreshingly diverse cast, How to be Fearless (with Roxy Roberts!) an unorthodox one-woman motivational seminar on how to defend yourself and live fearlessly, which was surprisingly poignant, and Robert., a tragicomedy about family, identity, loss, and bagpipes.


Coming up in September: Our copies of John Boyne’s latest, A Ladder to the Sky, have arrived from the UK (the North American release is not until November) so Rachel, Steph, and I are planning a buddy read! I’m about half-way through Foundryside, the first book in a new series by Divine Cities trilogy author Robert Jackson Bennett, and I have some literary fiction reads planned, with both Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan sitting on my shelf.

Books: The Court Dancer

36327117The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
(translated by Anton Hur)
Published August 7, 2018
I wish that I could recommend my only themed read for Women in Translation Month, but while the idea behind the novel is terrific, the execution just isn’t there. Suffering from pacing issues and a writing style that keeps the reader at arm’s length so we never truly connect with the characters, The Court Dancer fails to live up to its promising premise.

Set during the late Joseon Dynasty of the 1880/90s, when isolationist Korea began to open its doors to the west, a novice French diplomat arrives for an audience. He is enraptured by the beauty and dancing of Yi Jin, an orphaned girl who has grown into a skilled court dancer and favourite of the Queen, and gains permission for her to accompany him to France. In Belle Epoque Paris, Jin lives away from the gilded cage of court, translating literature and attending salons, but she’s overcome with grief and homesickness and returns to Korea in a final tragic homecoming.

This should have been right up my alley. I don’t know much about East Asian history, but books like Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko have sparked an interest to learn more, and the transitional period of the late nineteenth century provides an interesting backdrop for the story.

Unfortunately it’s paced at a crawl. We spend quite literally half of The Court Dancer on Victor, the French diplomat, waiting to receive permission to marry Yi Jin and for her to agree to the match. Yi Jin is reticent and we receive little in the way of emotion from her about anything, but especially her feelings, or lack thereof, for Victor. Indeed, she has little choice in the matter once the Queen decides that Jin’s beauty poses a threat to her relationship with the King and keeps Jin away from court. Victor is enraptured with Jin from first sight for entirely superficial reasons – she speaks French, her beauty reminds him of an ex-lover he’s lost, and she dances well. Neither is truly in love with the other, so it’s difficult to care about them as a couple.

I was far more interested in the complicated dynamics between Yi Jin and the Queen, who acts as both mother and rival to Jin. I also think that Kyung-Sook Shin could have solved both some of the pacing issues and characterization problems I had with her novel by choosing to begin The Court Dancer with scenes of Yi Jin and the Queen on the run instead of using these scenes only in brief flashbacks later on.

My main frustration with The Court Dancer is the writing style. Rarely have I been kept at such a distance by an author! I never connected with Kyung-Sook Shin’s characters, and as a result I found the climactic tragedy unaffecting. The Court Dancer manages to be both lethargic and melodramatic, with high drama that happens to characters we care little for. As a result, what should be a crushing, soul destroying tragedy is instead merely bittersweet and forgettable. Kyung-Sook Shin squanders the story’s potential by keeping the reader at a distance and employing a tell, don’t show, style of writing that keeps us from connecting with any of the characters on the page.

Despite this negativity, there are some things worth praising about the novel. There’s some poignant commentary on imperialism, particularly in Yi Jin’s dismay at art and artifacts being taken from the lands where they were created to be displayed without context in a French museum or library. ‘What right do the French have to loot these treasures merely to collect them?’ she wonders, and when Victor takes her to see a painting by Delacroix (a French artist) she comments that finally a piece of art is where it’s meant to be.

The Court Dancer also deals with themes of identity and being ‘other’. Jin is caught between two worlds but belongs to neither. In Paris she is a novelty as the only Korean woman, saying to Victor, “People here look at me like the things you have collected.” She becomes homesick for Korea, but upon her return finds that she no longer belongs.

I can certainly see The Court Dancer being tweaked and adapted into other mediums with success – I especially think it would make a stunning ballet – but the novel just didn’t work for me. I know Kyung-Sook Shin is a popular South Korean author and I’ve heard great things about her bestseller Please Look After Mom, but considering my great book-blogging friend Rachel made similar critiques of the author’s work in her review of another Kyung-Sook Shin novel, I’ll Be Right There, it will be some time before I consider reading another book by this author.