When Dutton reached out to me about a copy* of this book for its new paperback release I jumped at it because of my trip to China this summer! What I didn’t realize was that it was predominantly set in two of the cities I visited: Suzhou and Beijing! It was really neat to read through the fictionalized life of Sai Jinhua and actually feel like I know what and where she was talking about for the post part!
This is a debut novel that I probably would not have read just because I don’t read too many, but with my trip to China, the cover and having someone reach out to me about it, I figured I would give it a chance and I’m glad I did. Add in that the book also featured a subplot line about the one non-English classic from Asia I chose for my Classics Club list: Dream of the Red Chamber and it was well worth the read.
The Courtesan is a historical retelling of an actual persons life. It is the story of Sai Jinhua (Wikipedia link). I’m not going to lie and say there weren’t parts that made me uncomfortable (child prostitution, foot binding, rape), but mostly I found myself fascinated by the descriptions of Suzhou and Beijing that remain true today.
I remember when we were in Suzhou, our guide told us that legend had it that the most beautiful women in all of China come from Suzhou and Curry repeats this same legend. She also builds a focus on the bridges and waterways of Suzhou and they really are everywhere. I completely understand Suyin’s (Jinhua’s companion) desire to return to Suzhou and the water. I don’t know if I could live more than 2-3 hours from the beach or a very large body of water, knowing it’s there is comforting.
As much as this story is a tragedy, there is romance involved, but it’s more of the fairytale-never-going-to-happen romance. And I truly appreciated Curry’s decision not to provide a 100% saccharine ending with the woman finding her dream man and riding off into the sunset. She provided a realistic ending that was a bit jarring (if not unexpected) and left me at least with hope for the two characters.
Recommendation: Overall, the book was a fun read and definitely inspired me to look into historical facts about foot binding and the Boxer Rebellion. The story was moving and the writing was well done. This was one of those instances where too much description didn’t work against the author. When writing about something so different from what most readers would know, having been to China and struggled to describe it all, piling on the descriptions is useful. I’d give it a go if it sounds interesting!
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher and have provided an honest response. No other goods or services were exchanged.
Opening Line: “It is the Hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm the earth.”
Closing Line: “When it falls silent, she hears the crow of an all-knowing cockerel and says a final good night to her father.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from The Courtesan
“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, Jinhua, we must never mistake the stories we tell for the truth.” (9-10)
“Jinhua shrinks away, understanding only some of what the man has said—and then she sees the neat rows of buttons on his jacket and then those startling eyes, again. Bi yan. Blue eyes. Blue like the dome of heaven. Blue like the sky when a storm is coming but hasn’t quite arrived. And the buttons are shiny gold in two straight rows on a gray jacket that has ribbons and brooches and pins and medallions and is tapered at the man’s waist.” (252)