Historical novel explores 19th-century Korean life

The Blue Dragon, by Diana Brown. New York: St. Martin's Press. 454 pp. $19.95. For the past several years, Diana Brown has been quietly carving out a niche for herself in the field of historical fiction. In her new novel, Brown leaves England, though not the English, behind, and takes us into the exotic world of late-19th-century Korea.

Korea's history and culture are little known in the West. This is in part because Korea barred its doors to outsiders - traders and diplomats alike - until the last years of the 19th century. When finally Westerners gained admittance, they found a poor country ruled by a dynastic monarchy, a country vacillating between shamanism and Confucianism, a country coveted by both China and Japan: The women were cloistered, and only men - dressed in pristine white garments - were abroad during the day. They also found corruption, opium, underground political factions, debauchery, acupuncture, and gold.

This tumultuous world provides the setting for ``The Blue Dragon.'' This is a love story, but it is also a tale of religious self-discovery. Marigold Wilder is its likable heroine. A photographer, she is both spunky and uncertain, pragmatic, determined, and diffident. The daughter of an Anglican minister who finds it difficult to believe in her father's religious ``mumbo jumbo,'' she travels to Korea, hoping to expiate her sin of unbelief by becoming a missionary. There, she photographs the Korean people, gains access to the queen's court, and travels the length of the mountainous country.

Brown's prose can be ponderous, but she captures the quintessential cattiness that often prevails in social circles where the inhabitants have nothing in common beyond their alien status in a foreign land. Having lived in Korea, Brown writes of the Koreans with understanding and affection. This is true whether she is describing Korean women at the river's edge, laboriously beating the dirt from the men's white clothes, or the sijo, a Korean form of poetry that is sung.

But ``The Blue Dragon'' is like being given a marvelously detailed photograph, only to have it snatched away before one can really study it. Brown is no great stylist, but her descriptions are lucid; there just aren't enough of them. The plot resolves too facilely. The depths of political jockeying, both within and without the court, are only hinted at.

In the end, ``The Blue Dragon'' is too short and shallow. Instead of satisfying, it just whets the appetite. As an hors d'oeuvre to the summer Olympics in Seoul, however, it's not bad.

Melissa Pressley reviews historical fiction for the Monitor.

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