The writer, and her place in the Chi­nese puzzle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diane Stub­bings

The Em­press Lover By Linda Jaivin Fourth Es­tate, 318pp, $29.99 LINDA Jaivin’s lat­est novel is a sup­ple and in­tri­cate piece of sto­ry­telling. While os­ten­si­bly a work of fic­tion (Jaivin’s sev­enth), The Em­press Lover plays with the in­creas­ingly blurred lines be­tween fic­tion, mem­oir and his­tory. What re­sults is a nar­ra­tive that lays bare Jaivin’s re­la­tion­ship with China — per­sonal, pro­fes­sional and imag­i­na­tive — and how that re­la­tion­ship has forged the writer she is to­day.

In a small Bei­jing flat, Jia Peilin (Lin­nie) strug­gles to write the book that has haunted her for 25 years. A mid­dle-aged Aus­tralian woman of un­cer­tain ori­gins, Lin­nie has a shelf weighed down by note­books, each of them a failed at­tempt to write this “mas­sive thing”. It’s the rea­son she’s re­turned to China — “it was a story that, I had re­alised, could never reach its con­clu­sion un­less I re­turned here to China where it be­gan” — but still she scratches about for what it is she needs to say.

So Lin­nie keeps her­self dis­tracted. There’s Weibo (China’s an­swer to Face­book) and com- mis­sions to sub­ti­tle Chi­nese films. There’s her karaoke-singing land­lady, Mrs Jin, who’s al­ways pop­ping by for a chat, and a lover, Q, who never seems to an­swer his phone. And then there’s the let­ter, de­liv­ered by a boy who looks like he’s stepped out of an­other century.

Freshly writ­ten, its ink still dry­ing, the let­ter claims to have news of Lin­nie’s fa­ther. More im­por­tant, it draws into the story of Lin­nie’s an­ces­try the (real life) Bri­tish lin­guist and scholar Ed­mund Back­house, whose some­what dis­cred­ited ac­counts of the court of the Em­press Cixi were the in­spi­ra­tion for Lin­nie’s first novel, also called The Em­press Lover, a “saga stuffed full of gra­tu­itous, sen­sa­tion­al­ist sex scenes, mur­der, his­tory lessons and pur­ple prose”.

There is al­ways some­thing lively and mis­chievous about Jaivin’s writ­ing, and early on, it seems The Em­press Lover will be yet an­other of her erotic romps, the same sort of “in­ge­nious pas­tiche” that Back­house was renowned for. It’s a clever ruse, for when the me­an­der­ing lines of this novel co­a­lesce, it brings an emo­tional surge that’s as mov­ing as it is un­ex­pected.

Any­one who has read Jaivin’s 1995 de­but novel Eat Me will know that she has a fond­ness for Mo­bius-like twist­ings and turn­ings that leave you never quite cer­tain whether what you’re read­ing is real or imag­ined, truth or con­struct. Yet whereas in Eat Me the de­vice had lit­tle other pur­pose than to give lit­er­ary heft to an other­wise in­sub­stan­tial story, here it un­der­scores the of­ten con­fus­ing and un­pre­dictable lay­ers of China’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory, and how easy it is for in­di­vid­u­als — whether na­tive-born or other­wise — to get lost within them.

What Jaivin seems to be un­der­lin­ing is that this story — which en­com­passes China from its ear­li­est dy­nas­ties to Tianan­men Square and be­yond — can­not be told in one voice, nor can it be con­tained within the bounds of his­tory or fic­tion. It re­quires an ac­cre­tion of voices: Lin­nie, Back­house, Back­house’s doc­tor and a poet who once knew Q. Even Jaivin her­self slips from

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