Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Courtesan

Title:  The Courtesan
Author:  Alexandra Curry
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0525955135 / 978-0525955139

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It is the Hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm to earth."

Favorite Quote:  "A story is a garden you can carry in your pocket. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are for pleasure and refuge. Like gardens they are small places in a large world. But ... we must never mistake the stories we tell for the truth."

Sai Jinhua (1872-1936) was a courtesan - a prostitute. Her life took her from her father's house to a brothel and from China to Europe and back again. She played  a role in Chinese foreign relations. History has portrayed Sai Jinhua as both a heroine and a depraved villain. Her legend changes depending on the storyteller. This book depicts her as neither a heroine nor a villain but rather as a young woman with a truly tragic life.

If you want to understand to what extent this fiction is historical, read the Author's Note. Accounts of Sai Jinhua's life exist but conflict each other. This book is "the product of ... imagination" and "the story of a woman's life the way it might have been." Locations have been changed. Historical figures such as Empress Sisi of Austria, whose paths may or may not have crossed Jinhua's, have been included in this story. This time and place such as the events of the Boxer Rebellion are historical, but the rest of this book is all fiction. The Author's Note is a wonderful addition to help distinguish fact from that fiction. An additional bibliography is included for readers interested in the actual history (or at least other accounts of her life.)

Even the fictional history in this book has wide gaps. Jinhua's life is presented as "the five courses of a banquet served up one after the other." Unfortunately, that gaps are never quite explained. For example, how does a man find a girl in the middle of the millions of people with no explanation? How a does a child who essentially grows up in bondage all of a sudden come across like a learned young woman becoming proficient in several European languages? How is a friendship, that is left for years with no contact, reestablished so quickly and seamlessly? How does one single meeting lead to a lifetime of waiting for a love to return? Reading through, I feel like I am missing part of the story. Each part is complete in itself, but the bridges between the sections are missing.

The big question I am left with is why write such a graphic telling of this story. Even in the first few chapters, the book describes a beheading, a physical examination of a child equalling abuse, a brutal foot binding, and rape. I almost stopped reading at this point for those descriptions are not for me. So, reader beware.

Jinhua was a courtesan - a prostitute. Orphaned at age 7, she was sold into prostitution. At age 12, she was put on the "market". That chronology is horrifying just in thought. Is it necessary to describe the acts involved? The descriptions, particularly of rape and violence against women, continue throughout the book. The story is heartbreaking; I don't need the physical descriptions to make it so.

I don't know quite what to make of this book. It is based in history but is more fiction than history. It is a tragic and often times disturbing story. Did I like it for the historical context? Did I dislike it for the descriptions? I am still undecided, but it is a debut novel that keeps me reading. For that, I look forward to seeing what Alexandra Curry writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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