The Courtesan By Alexandra Curry
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
Rating: 5 stars
Source: eARC from NetGalley
About the book: The Courtesan is
an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and
loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this
day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is
her story, told the way it might have been.
The year is 1881.
Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her
mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the
truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and
subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is
her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid
be enough to sustain her?
When an elegant but troubled scholar
takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous
first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him--as Emissary to the
foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia--on an
exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China's
early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s
eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place
that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the
constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find
Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a
changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits
East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies
will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who
are most dear to her.
A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding.
First I would like to thank the publisher for letting me review this
This one intrigued me when I first saw it on Edelweiss, I have to admit, I
am glad I followed my intrigue to Netgalley, where I hoped beyond hope to get
my hands on an early read of this. I love historical reads, I especially love
historical reads that are about places where I have been. I traveled to China
while I was in college, it was a trip I won't ever forget.
The loved how the author took me back there in her descriptions and in the
rich culture that I can clearly see that she loves.
The character of Sai Jinhua is very intriguing, we see her at her most
innocent in the beginning of the book, she loves her father very much. She
feels like her father's death is her fault in a way. For a child the very act
of losing a parent is devastating. Yet it does not stop there, she is then sold
to "A house with a wide door" by her mother. She is first put through
the process of foot binding. Can I admit that I became slightly squeamish at
this part, I mean I have heard of foot binding before, I have seen the
pictures. Yet the thought and the descriptions, just to have the smallest feet
possible, I have to always wonder why.
She is also taught how to pleasure a man, this house is; in a simple
description a brothel. All cultures have their own names for them, but the
Chinese names are always elaborate descriptions. This one is called The House
of the Round Moon and Passionate love. I have read even more elaborate names,
but you get the point. So at 12 Jinhua loses her innocence, this scene made me
slightly less squeamish than the foot binding.
So a year goes by, and while Jinhua is not alone, she in the years she has
been there has made a almost sister like friendship with the maid Suyin. This
friendship is one that she treasures always, even though a strange twist of
fate takes her away from the house. This part of the book, from the
introduction of the scholar to the journey to Vienna, was a little hard to
understand. This was suppose to happen to her, it was suppose to lead her to
something happy, but it all seemed sort of random. I mean how does the scholar
know to go to that house, where there happens to be a girl who remembers her
father's beheading by painting a red line across her throat.
So moving on, her master is sent to Austria as an emissary, and you can
clearly see the difference in the experience with these two. One holds tightly
to his cultural background, while Jinhua wants nothing more than to learn about
everything she can. I don't really think it was the Count she meet there that
made her happy. I think it was what she gained in knowledge that made her truly
happy. In the book she meets the Empress of Austria, Elizabeth. who shares with
her the tale of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After three years, we find Jinhua and Suyin in Peking, the year is 1900.
They own their own brothel by the name of The House of Midsummer Dreams.
I only mention the year because of the events that happen in Peking in 1900,
what is known as the Boxer Rebellion. I first heard about the Boxer Rebellion
when I was in middle school, I was watching a movie one day called 55 days in
Peking. It’s an old one starring Charlton Heston, this piece of history from
that day truly fascinated me. The author mentions a book in her sources about
the Boxer Rebellion that I actually own. It is Jinhua's relations with
foreigners that causes her trouble here, leading to a tragedy that changes her
As a wrap up, this book is about a truly fascinating person, and I would
recommend to anyone who likes history, who likes learning. I would recommend it
to a person who likes to be drawn into the life of a woman who defines an age
in her countries history. I commend the author for sharing Jinhua's life
with the rest of us, and offer a thank you to her for a truly wonderful book.