After growing up in a famous house of courtesans, run by her mother, a young American-Chinese girl is kidnapped and her virginity put up for sale, changing the course of her life forever. This book by Amy Tan is about the life of the Shanghai courtesan at the turn of the century, about the nature of racial identity in shaping lives, and about abandonment and our ability to love.
I’ve always really enjoyed Amy Tan’s books, I really like the way she writes about Chinese history through the female perspective, without painting over the ugly parts or sensationalising. She came to write this story after seeing an exhibition about Chinese courtesan culture, and recognising specific types of clothing only worn by these women from photographs of her Grandmother. Whether her Grandmother was a courtesan or not is in doubt, but the story that it brought to her mind gripped her and wouldn’t let go, and so she wrote this book.
It’s probably not the best of her works to read if this is the first time you are reading Amy Tan. The book is quite long, and very sad in places, but if you are interested in Chinese history or women’s stories, then you’ll get a lot out of it. It is moving, fascinating and sometimes a bit shocking. The author is powerfully adept at making us feel like the sense that we might be unlovable, or that we are abandoned, which is a universal feeling, is parallel to the sense that the courtesans have that they are disposable and one misstep in their career could be fatal to their health and happiness. The antidote to this is often the strong bonds that the women forge between each other, making sisters of each other and caring for each other as much as possible in a cutthroat world.
Beautiful and heartbreaking, The Valley of Amazement is another wonderful book by a master storyteller.