MARGARET DRABBLE'S THE Red Queen is set half in eighteenth-century Korea, and half in the twenty-first century world of 'overwhelming global muddle'. There is then an epilogue which is set, archly, in 'Postmodern Times'. Subtitled a 'transcultural tragicomedy', and 111 of wry wit rather than outright comedy, and sad irony rather than true tragedy, it is a complex, deeply satisfying novel about death and rebirth, memory and immortality. It is also richly and surprisingly sensuous - especially its first half, an exotic, historical journey through a seductive and alien landscape.
The 'Red Queen' of the title is the Crown Princess of Seoul. She is born in 1735, into a world of suffocating Confucian rationalism and elaborate ritual, where it is a hotly debated topic whether 'a man may soil himself and pollute his kinswornan by holding out his hand to