Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

The Courtesan
by Alexandra Curry
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
Publisher: Dutton
Buy It: Amazon 
Source: Penguin's First to Read eARC / Pre-Ordered eBook

"An astonishing debut novel inspired by the life of the legendary Qing dynasty courtesan, Sai Jinhua.

The year is 1881, the era of China’s humiliation at the hands of imperialist Europe. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left alone and unprotected, her life transformed after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. As an orphan, she endures the brutal logic of a brothel-keeper, who puts her to work as a so-called money tree, and she survives the worst of human nature with the friendship and wisdom of the crippled brothel maid.

When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, her world begins to expand. “A thousand changes lie ahead,” he announces, and Jinhua accompanies him, now emissary to Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Holland, and Russia, to the land of “foreign devils”: Vienna. This place of strangeness delights and surprises her, and ultimately brings her to the “Great Love” that she had only read about in stories.

Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a terrible clash of East and West is brewing, and where her western sympathies will ultimately threaten not only her own survival but the survival of those who are most dear to her.

The Courtesan  is a timeless tale of friendship and sacrifice, temptation and redemption; the story of a woman’s journey to discern what is real and abiding, and a book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relations with the West."

My Review:

   A fictionalized telling of the late Sai Jinhua's life in China, this filled my craving for a good historical fiction read. The fact it is a fictionalized telling of her life, from the point when her father was executed and on, one needs to take a step back and just enjoy the book. To not expect the story to be centered around politics or concrete facts about her life during this time when little is actually known. Curry wrote the book beautifully, how the tale would be told in Jinhua's language and how she would speak. The expectations of women and prostitutes and what was considered beautiful then, plays a large part in the novel. This was a time when foot-binding on women was necessary to obtain beauty and improve their walking. Curry focuses on the life and the forced dependence of women with men. The details of the story, time, and setting were great. The story is about one girl's journey to becoming a woman, friendship, and possible love. There is also the political element and how the Chinese viewed the prevalence of opium. An easy read with good prose that I think many people will enjoy. 

1887, 15 years old
   I was intrigued to find out about the life of Sai Jinhua, even if it was fictionalized parts of her life that isn't well documented. The first third of the book in Suzhou was captivating and culturally intriguing. From the foot-binding that was in excrutiating detail to the life she was forced to live under Lao Mama's rule. However, overall I never really sympathized with Jinhua, but with Suyin. Suyin was the truly selfless character to balance Jinhua's selfishness. Suyin sparked more understanding and empathy because I could relate to her better than Jinhua. What happened in Jinhua's life was at times horrible and unfortunate, something that was out of her hands, but she still held herself together and used the help of others to pull her out of her torment. Suyin was one of those people who helped.   
    The Courtesan is not a plot driven novel, but character driven, chronicling the life of Sai Jinhua and her growth from a child to a woman. This is a novel that can be easily read by adolescents and older. The language is not difficult and the content is not graphic. In my opinion the novel is not outstanding, but good for those who would like to branch out into adult historical fiction. This would be a good book for a book club due to the many topics of China around the turn of the 20th century, the relationship between Sai Jinhua and Suyin, Sai Jinhua's life, Chinese women studies, cultural traditions, and the clashing of East and West.

Have you read The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry? What are your thoughts if so?


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