Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: Chain of Amber

Title: Chain of Amber
Author: Mary Linley Taylor
Softcover: 169 pages
Publisher: The Book Guild Ltd (1992)
ISBN-10: 0863326064
ISBN-13: 978-0863326066

Mary Linley Taylor was an amazing woman who lived an extraordinary life. This book is her post-humously published autobiography which primarily focuses on her life in Korea in the early 1900s with her husband, gold mining entrepreneur and foreign correspondent Albert Wilder "Bruce" Taylor.

Mary's journey starts with her privileged upbringing in England and moves to her involvement with an international acting company which brings her to India, Japan and eventually, "settles" in Korea. Her sunny disposition combined with a feisty rebellious streak provides the reader with plenty of witty observations and humorous anecdotes. Indeed, Mary had remarkable experiences all over the peninsula. Her interactions both with notable Koreans and distinguished foreigners are testament to her character. A fearless traveler, she traversed dangerous mountain trails, roughed it in gold mining camps, and even traveled to England via Siberia; clearly she was resilient for a lady of her social standing. Furthermore, she was compassionate to Koreans and held an atypical affinity for her adoptive home away from home.

Having been well educated, her writing is thoroughly readable and detailed for being collected from her personal diary. For example, a charming reoccurring theme surrounds her lifelong attraction to amber and is used throughout the book. Taylor was also an accomplished artist and her sampled work is impressive. Although sparse, the illustrations and photos included illuminate her narrative and give life beyond mere description to many of her friends and locations.

A criticism I should point out includes her frustratingly lack of dates in many of her entries. It's difficult to pinpoint when exactly certain events occurred. Otherwise, there's sufficient surrounding context. Another gripe is the book's limited British pressing; this isn't an easy book to find.

Chain of Amber has plenty excitement, romance and tragedy to go around. Mary was an integral member of the Seoul foreign community for years and this book is her lasting legacy. Her exciting life abroad can be optimistically summed up in her own words: "These are the experiences that lend a fairy-tale quality to life in the Orient. In some ways, one gets so much more than one expects and, in others, so much less than what one counts on, that life is filled with infinite variety". Perhaps more poignant of a close comes from her last chapter "...a longing came to me to share my life experiences with others...the thought crystallized into a need...'I'll write a book,' I said out loud, 'whether anyone reads it or not.'"

- - -

I pulled another "If you give a mouse a cookie". After I finished Chain Of Amber, I noticed that Mrs. Taylor did not have a wikipedia entry, despite plenty of information available. So, I created a rough startup page that I hope grows into a proper reference over time.

I can't remember who or what encouraged me idea to pick up this book, but I was pleasantly surprised to finally get around to reading it. I worried that it would be full of hoity-toity judgments of barbaric Koreans but it couldn't be further from that. It's an amazing memoir. For one, Mrs. Taylor lived an adventurous life, wrote of her experiences with great emotion and left behind a wonderful testimony of her travels. Also, we share the same birthday.

I was amused at how many of her observations from almost a hundred years ago are still relevant today. Here is one especially funny observation about Engrish advertisements in Japan:
  • "The shop signs seemed funnier than ever to me that day: Tom Cock-Eye, the tailor, advertised in English, The Monkey Jacket Make for Japanese; a ladies' tailor sign read: Ladies have fits upstairs, there was also a photographer's sign which read: Photographer Executed Here, and a barbor shop announced that he was, A First Class Head Cutter." (p.34)
I was surprised to discover that their old house is still standing in Jong-no. Had I known that, I would have visited it when I lived in Seoul. Oh well, something to look forward to next time we visit.

There's also a short documentary floating around out there about the house called Mr. Taylor’s House by Mi-Jin Lee and Se Mee Kim of Bassim Media. I can't find it online yet, but it sounds fascinating by the description:
  • "There is an old fashioned, western type house in the center of Seoul, South Korea. We are going to meet people who once lived in this house and people who still live in the house. We will follow three of them: an American family, the Taylors who built the house in 1923 and the 92 years old son (Bruce Taylor) who spent his childhood in this house. We will also meet 82 years old inhabitant, Jeong, Wooyoung who has been living in the room, used to be a Taylor’s study for about 40 years and a 28 year-old young man, Choi, Sunghoon who recently moved into this house. Through these people’s personal stories with the house, we will get to know a fascinating aspect of Korea, its momentous history and its future."
Lastly, and most interestingly, while searching for references I was very pleasantly surprised to see that her son has written his own memoir. I surely am going to pick this one up, too.


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