Born in the US to immigrant Chinese parents, Amy Tan is well qualified to comment on the themes of race and belonging that typify her work. Her latest book complements her popular earlier works, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife. Amy Tan is a master storyteller and this work, eight years in the making, is a big book, both in content and in length. Just short of 600 pages, it spans 50 years and follows three generations of women in China and the US.
Growing up in a high-class brothel in Shanghai during the early years of the 20th century, Violet is a troubled child. She feels that her American mother, the brothel madam, prefers others (especially men) to her. She searches for her own identity and wants to know who her father is – is he American or Chinese? Her mother spins her one story, then another. Violet’s need to test her mother’s love leads to jaw-droppingly wilful behaviour. An outsider and a foreigner in her own land, Violet’s only friend is her cat Carlotta.
In 1912, the Emperor was deposed in the Xinhai Revolution and the Republic of China was established. In the ensuing chaos Violet is separated from her mother. She is abducted and sold to a courtesan house, forced to become one of the working women she has so despised throughout her early childhood.
Strong-willed Violet now has to succumb to the terrifying prospect of a life in sexual servitude. She has to learn to behave in ways that will attract male patrons. Everything, from her smile and gait to her conversation and cries of passion are staged for effect. But Violet does not give up on her search for love and connection. Hope is followed by despair as we accompany Violet on her tumultuous journey through life.
Tan explores the appalling outcomes for women in a misogynist society. Afforded no value except as the plaything of men, women are essentially chattels that can be bought and sold, eventually discarded when their beauty fades. With few alternatives, poor women are forced to sell the only thing they have: themselves.
The basic human needs of love and connection and the bond between mother and child are paramount in this novel. The setting in the international quarter of Shanghai adds texture, with its undercurrent of imperialism and simmering racial tension.
Told through the perspectives of Violet as a child, then Violet as an adult, followed by the back story of her mother’s early years where the truth is finally revealed. At the end, all loose end are satisfyingly brought together.
The first and final thirds of the book are the strongest. Around the middle, where Violet endures yet another heartbreak, it starts to feel repetitive and could have done with some pruning. Nor does it ring true that the intelligent and canny Violet falls for a man and risks everything to go on a perilous journey to the remote outback chiefly on the basis of some pretty shonky ‘poetry’:
But this is a minor distraction in an otherwise riveting book. Amy Tan writes beautifully and with humour, despite the often dark material. Her characters are alive and passionate, and the Chinese pronouncements priceless.
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