by Alexandra Curry
published by Dutton
I received and advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
I was eager to read this book because it was based on the famous courtesan Sai Jinhua. One of my favorite books is Memoirs of a Geisha, which while not based on a real person, was an impressive depiction of the lives of these intriguing women. The Courtesan takes place in China during the late Qing dynasty. The story is steeped in history- the weak emperor, the threat of Western Imperialism, the Boxer Rebellion. I felt the need to break out my old books from college, especially the class I took in Chinese history. Jinhua is a pampered child of a courtesan who is adored by her father, but barely tolerated by his first wife. When the father is executed by order of the emperor, the wife sells the child to a brothel and enters a convent.
At the brothel, Jinhua finds a friend in the maid Suyin, who tries to protect her the best she can. Their relationship is the only good thing in her life, as she suffers the pain of foot binding, and an education in “bed business”. When she is old enough, her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. For some years, she must suffer the humiliation of living and working in the brothel, until she is sold to a wealth diplomat as his courtesan. With him, she travels to Europe and is amazed at the amount of freedom women have there. She realizes she cannot life forever hidden away.
While I enjoyed much of this book, Jinhua never felt like a real character. I understand how difficult it must be to write about a actual person, but I think the author made Sunyin a more interesting character and would have liked to have had the story include her more. While some parts of Jinhua’s life was passed over- like how she left the diplomat- I thought the author did wonderful job of portraying China and her people during this turbulent time.
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.