Illustration of a Chinese courtesan by Tim Marrs
© Tim Marrs

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99/Ecco Press, RRP$29.99, 608 pages

The Valley of Amazement doesn’t waste any time. The long opening sentence leads us quickly into the only high-class courtesan house in Shanghai run by a white woman, where innumerable complications soon arise. Amy Tan maintains the pace skilfully as we follow the story of three generations of women, spanning the transition from dynastic rule to the early 20th century and travelling from Shanghai to San Francisco and on to a remote village deep in the mountains of China.

The novel begins with the narrator, seven-year-old Violet, growing up surrounded by Chinese courtesans in her mother’s House of Lulu Mimi, known by westerners as Hidden Jade Path: “My mother named me Violet after a tiny flower she loved as a girl growing up in San Francisco, a city I have seen only in postcards.”

In this world of women, where men are entertained in a slow and courtly fashion and eventually end up purchasing a woman for one or two seasons, Violet grows up feeling confused about her biracial identity. She is too young to understand the challenges her mother, Lulu, faces as a single mother and a white woman in early 20th-century Shanghai, and interprets Lulu’s neglect as evidence of a lack of love.

Violet carries this sense of loneliness with her; she is ostracised at school for being the child of a courtesan house owner, and feels conspicuous and confused because she desires to be white but is betrayed repeatedly by her Chinese features.

Loneliness mingles with secrets and mystery later in Violet’s life when her mother is deceived into leaving Shanghai without her on a transcontinental boat. Her mother’s white lover, Fairweather, sells the teenage Violet into a courtesan house, catapulting her into a new life of suffering, repeating the patterns of her mother’s life.

Violet’s first true love and life-long friend, the oddly named Loyalty Fang, is one of many men to enter and leave her life. They are largely philanderers, wife-beaters and cheats, with the exception of Bosson Edward Ivory III, who treats Violet with respect and gives her the love she craves in the few years they share. Bosson also happens to be legally bound to another woman he was tricked into marrying.

At times the reader longs for Violet and her fellow courtesans to take some initiative and stop relying solely on marriage for their happiness. There are hints of other possibilities at the novel’s close but, overall, The Valley of Amazement seems to suggest that women of the time, living in challenging circumstances, could only afford to dream modestly.

But what the women do have are other women. The courtesans develop deep loyalties to each other, illustrated most vividly by Violet’s relationship with Magic Gourd, an older courtesan who becomes a life-long companion.

Tan, who was born in the US to Chinese immigrant parents, is a gifted storyteller. In earlier fiction such as her celebrated debut The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), she demonstrated her ability to handle intricate plots and a large cast of characters, weaving magical and moving narratives.

She has, however, been accused of exoticising her Asian roots, particularly by Asian readers. The Valley of Amazement, her sixth novel, can indeed be seen as romanticising clichés of Asia as it conjures a world of courtesans in elaborate vermilion costumes and boudoirs “sumptuously refurbished with silk and velvet, painted glass lamps, carved high-back chairs with tassels, and lace-curtained screens”.

As the narrative progresses, we see more subtlety as Tan reverses and revises some of the clichés. For example, Violet’s biracial looks are first characterised by Loyalty Fang as those of a “Eurasian princess”; later he notes that the longer he has known her, the more he thinks of her as not “one race or two. You are simply who you are.”

Just as Violet is a complex character beyond her Asian and white ethnic roots, Tan’s large-hearted, florid and ragged tale goes beyond casual stereotypes. This is one writer’s particular idiom and vision of the world – and within that she offers us a rich cast of characters who both repel and compel.

Krys Lee is author of ‘Drifting House’ (Faber)

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