Tan sur­passes her­self in tale of cour­te­sans and cul­ture

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS -

self-as­sured seven-year-old named Vi­o­let Min­turn bursts on to the page. “When I was seven, I knew ex­actly who I was: a thor­oughly Amer­i­can girl in race and man­ners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Min­turn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class cour­te­san house in Shang­hai.”

The pre­co­cious Vi­o­let is in for a rude awak­en­ing. Her adored mother falls for a feck­less charmer – the first domino in a cas­cade of strong women who seem doomed to be taken in by scoundrels – and Vi­o­let soon finds out that she is halfChi­nese, wholly aban­doned, and wait­ing for her own “de­flo­ration” to be auc­tioned in a cour­te­san house not quite so first-class as the one she has so haugh­tily ob­served.

This is a world in which women are sold and their names changed to suit the whim of who­ever owns them. Vi­o­let be­comes Zizi, a cour­te­san whose only friend and hope of sur­vival ap­pears – in a chap­ter rem­i­nis­cent of Arthur Golden’s Mem­oirs of a Geisha – in the form of her old friend Magic Gourd. Women’s friend­ships are the only con­stant, where even moth­ers can­not be re­lied upon and men are worse than use­less.

In a typ­i­cally Tan sce­nario, Vi­o­let’s life echoes her mother’s, and 14 years later her own daugh­ter is tricked from her, de­spite her fiercely pro­tec­tive love for her. “The Chi­nese mid­wife solemnly an­nounced that my baby was a girl… I cried for the pain she would share with me.”

The nar­ra­tive fol­lows Vi­o­let’s jour­ney – lit­er­ally up moun­tain and me­taphor­i­cally through the val­ley of the ti­tle – to find her mother and daugh­ter and a place for her­self be­tween two cul­tures. But the real weight of the story lies in Vi­o­let’s es­tab­lish­ing her iden­tity some­where be­tween east and west, when each dis­en­fran­chises women equally.

Three gen­er­a­tions of women must strug­gle to main­tain their iden­tity and dig­nity in the same ver­sion of a pas­sive fight, ex­pressed by Vi­o­let’s teenaged daugh­ter: “… it was stupid that I would let my­self die just be­cause I hated them. I knew what I had to do to es­cape. I would be the good girl who lived a false life.” The ques­tion is, how long can a woman play the pas­sive good girl be­fore all her fight is ex­tin­guished?

Tan’s lan­guage through­out is re­plete with sump­tu­ous de­tail – from the omi­nous “pe­onies the size of ba­bies’ heads” in chap­ter one, to the rather more grue­some de­tails of bound feet and for­mal de­flo­rations later on. So stark his­tor­i­cal facts stand out: “There were over fif­teen hun­dred first class houses,” Vi­o­let men­tions at one point.

Tan claims she be­gan this work of fic­tion af­ter she saw a pho­to­graph of her own grand­mother in a tra­di­tional cour­te­san’s cos­tume, and won­dered…

She has by no means ex­hausted her sup­ply of fic­tional women who pass to each other, through the gen­er­a­tions, a de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be bro­ken, no mat­ter what. This val­ley is a pro­duc­tive fur­row to plough. – The In­de­pen­dent

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