Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

The Courtesan By Alexandra Curry
Publisher: Dutton
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 “Great Love.”

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. 

My Review:

First I would like to thank the publisher for letting me review this title.

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 life forevermore.

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.

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