A Transcultural Tragicomedy

By Margaret Drabble

Harcourt. 334 pp. $24

This novel depends on the idea of through-lines that connect generations and genders by a "scarlet thread." It's about destiny and fate, and how human beings -- as well as ideas -- are linked.

Part 1 of "The Red Queen" is a fictional redaction, a first-person account of her life by Lady Hyegyong (or Lady Hong), crown princess of Korea, who lived 200 years ago. But Margaret Drabble writes in the introduction, "I have not attempted to describe Korean culture or to reconstruct 'real life' in the Korean court of the late eighteenth century." What she's done instead is construct a disconcerting hybrid in which the princess does indeed remember her life -- being entered as a child in a royal-wife lottery by her ambitious family; and her betrothal to the crown prince, who is kind at first but turns into someone cruel, debauched, cracked and delusional -- but with occasional, jarring, modern asides.

All the old "Oriental" stops are pulled out here: the gauzy silks, the claustrophobic women's quarters, the meaningless hours spent changing clothes with nowhere to go in them, the mincing and guileful measures the princess must take to stay in her in-laws' good graces, the makeup, the embroidery, the debauchery, the general female debasement. When the crown prince finally goes mad, he is executed in the most horrible of "Eastern" ways -- he's sealed into a rice chest for 11 days, until he's frightened to death by a thunderstorm. The princess, due to her great courage and cunning, lives on to a very ripe old age.

But the princess, when she has a child, suffers "postnatal depression." She discusses her husband's "phobias." She speaks of "anorexia," of "indoctrination," "social protest," "obsessive compulsive disorders," and refers to herself as a "battered wife." She is, then, a member of 18th-century Korean royalty addressing an English-language-speaking, middle-class reader familiar with the psychological and sociological jargon of the 21st century.

So what we are looking at is a postmodern text, already made to be so by the author, so that the reader won't have to go to the trouble. It's a little bit like using Bisquick instead of making our biscuits from scratch. But like any packaged product, this faux narrative leaves a faint bad taste (especially since just this year Anchee Min went to such incredible pains to create the Chinese "real life" of the last living dowager empress in the thoroughly researched novel "Empress Orchid").

Part 2 of "The Red Queen" flashes forward to contemporary times, to rooms at Oxford, where Barbara Halliwell, an academic in the precarious middle of a so-far-promising career, is preparing to travel to an international conference in Seoul. Someone has anonymously sent her the memoirs of Lady Hong, and on the plane Halliwell finds herself captivated and enchanted by the mysterious text. (Sadly, the memoir to be found in these pages isn't all that captivating or enchanting.) Upon landing in Korea, Halliwell will encounter two new, important men in her life. The first is a kind, scholarly Korean with plenty of time on his hands. She has accidentally stolen his luggage -- ah, but there are no accidents! -- and he will show her around to every possible monument and palace that pertain to the princess. The second is the star of the conference, Jan van Jost, with whom she will have an abbreviated but intense affair. Jan is married to a high-strung woman who pines to adopt a Chinese child . . .

That's enough of the plot. The themes here are tried and true: Women get a bad break in every society we can think of. They are oppressed and browbeaten in myriad ways. They endure arranged marriages. They have trouble getting tenure. Even now, in China, baby girls are exported for profit, a disrespected cash crop like hemp or tobacco. But women, if they're strong, can and will prevail, provided they possess stamina, guile, courage. And maybe, even, their lives and memories will pass down through the ages. Very late in this narrative, Halliwell, who has been obsessed for a long time now with Lady Hong, will meet "Margaret Drabble," a novelist skulking unnoticed at the fringes of someone else's book launch. Halliwell passes on the story to her, who in turn puts it into these pages, because all of life is connected by a scarlet thread.

I had a lot of trouble with this book. The modern anachronisms in the first half. The travel-magazine material in the second. (Do we really need to know in such detail about ladies' public toilets in contemporary Seoul?) I disliked the British self-love that makes England the very center of the cultural universe. (Why didn't the Lady Hong go off in search of immortality in Ghana or Uzbekistan?) And I can't help but think that postmodern critical theories are already on the edge of going out of style, and where will that put this version of Lady Hong in 20 years? Back in the literary rice chest, I guess.