A timeless novel of one woman who bridged two worlds in a tumultuous era of East meets West
The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been.
The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her?
When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him--as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia--on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China's early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.”
Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her.
A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding.
Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 8th 2015 by Dutton
Two stars: A novel that falls flat due to large chunks of missing time and a writing style that is hard to connect with.
Jinhua is a precocious eight year old whose whole world revolves around her scholarly father. Jinhua is the daughter of her father's concubine who died while giving birth to her. When Jinhua's father fails to return one day, she spends the entire day crying for him, only to learn from her father's first wife, who consequently hates her, that her father was beheaded at the request of the emperor. Jinhua is promptly sold to a brothel where her feet are bound and she is trained for "bed business". Jinhua's life is brutal and harsh, until one day, another scholarly man comes to the brothel and insists that she is the reincarnation of his dead concubine. Jinhua becomes this man's concubine. When the scholarly man is called away to Vienna, Jinhua accompanies him and learns the ways of the barbaric West. What will happen to the Jinhua, will she find love and happiness at last?
What I Liked:
- I picked up The Courtesan because I was interested in learning more about the Chinese culture, and more specifically the life of a woman during the late 19th Century. I was also intrigued because this book was compared to Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a favorite of mine. This book doesn't live up to Memoirs, but I did learn some interesting things about women in China during this time period.
- The first part of the story was riveting, even though at times, it was disturbing and painful to read. Once Jinhua is sold to the brothel, her life becomes a living hell. Her feet are broken and bound, and she is forced to learn all about sex. At twelve, she is forced to bed with a man who brutalizes her. Life is cruel for the girls in the brothel, and they are beaten and sexually abused. The one thing that keeps Jinhua grounded is her love for the maid and her friend, Suyin. Even though there were times that I recoiled in horror, I kept reading as I wanted a better understanding of life for women in China. This was an eye opener.
- The third part of the story follows Jinhua as a young woman living in Vienna with her husband. Her life has dramatically improved. In Vienna, Jinhua's eyes are opened to all the possibilities life has to offer. During her time in Vienna, she learns German, and she begins to take big steps, and she refuses to be a subservient and abused Chinese woman. It was here that I saw tremendous growth and courage in Jinhua.
- The final portion of the book relates Jinhua's struggles once she returns to China and War comes. Jinhua is in danger because of her Western sympathies. Once again, she is forced to make some hard decisions as she fights for herself and those she lives.
- All in all, this is a sad, at times depressing, account of the struggles young woman in China faced. Life was cruel and they had no rights or voice. Even though this was a troubling and disturbing read, I gleaned some important information from the book.
And The Not So Much:
- I was completely engrossed in the first portion of the book, but after Jinhua's time in Vienna, I became lost. The author breaks the book down into six parts that cover different periods of Jinhua's life. The problem was that there was no bridge between the different sections. There was often a big jump in time between, and absolutely no recap, leaving me with a lot of questions and no answers. I never found out why she left Vienna, did she leave on her accord, or did she leave with her husband? I didn't like the time jumps, it made the read choppy and left to many questions. Furthermore, I what happened to her husband? So much information was left out.
- The writing style was confusing. It is told in third person narrative with several view points. I never felt drawn into the story.
- This was supposed to be a book about a woman who forged a relationship with the West and found a great love, but again, so much was left out of the story. It was hinted that Jinhua fell in love with a Count in Vienna, but did she have a torrid love affair with him or not? Furthermore, I was never clear on their parting? I was also troubled by the fact that there was really no detail regarding how she made it back to China and why.
- The other issue I had was that the book is depressing and things really never improve. There is really no joy or happiness.
- The ending is abrupt and there is no mention of what happened to Jinhua at the end of her life.
The Courtesan is a book I really wanted to love, but I didn't because of the way the novel was written. This is a novel that starts out strong, but ends up faltering quickly because of the time jumps and no bridge to explain what happened between the different sections. I struggled to connect with the writing style, and I was disappointed in the lack of information. Finally, the books ends abruptly with no mention of what happened to Jinhua at the end of her life. The Courtesan is a book that will work for a select audience, but for me, it was a miss.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own, and I was no compensated for this review.