Some books define an era, a scene.
F Scott Fitzgerald – Hardy – Grisham. You only have to murmur the name and a world is instantly summoned. Typically it is the composite of writer’s work that produces this effect – but sometimes, just one book plants a stake and captures a world. To Kill a Mockingbird is a topical example (the race-divided early-c20th American south, all sweat and porches and suspicious looks), but the one on my mind is Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (there’s a reason it was on my mind in the last post.) It captured the early twentieth century geisha/courtesan scene with a brilliance and uniqueness that throws down a gauntlet to all books coming after it.
Labouring away under the shadow of this monolith is Amy Tan’s Valley of Amazement. Yes, it’s set in Shanghai rather than Japan, but it’s a high class courtesan house all the same, with plenty of dwelling on the wiles and techniques of the successful courtesan. In this novel, Violet grows up the half-Chinese, half-American daughter of a madam who, by twists of fate, becomes a courtesan herself before falling into all manner of disastrously fated life choices. Much of the book focusses on the courtesan scene, with Violet as initial observer and eventual participant. There’s always something a bit sensationalist about these sorts of subjects and here are the expected slightly titillating, slightly humorous sections on how to please a man, what the courtesans are really thinking, and so on. It felt like territory well trodden by others, most notably Golden.
The book does eventually move on from all things prozzer and branch out. It is, after all, really rather long. Violet gets into all sorts of scrapes and heartbreak, with multiple marriages, death, escape and loss all covered. I for one would have preferred a severely shortened version with a better focus. The closing section covers a family reunion over three generations, and is somewhat slow and unsatisfying. I couldn’t remember it clearly even immediately after finishing. The intent of the novel is to cover the wide and varied experience of the main character’s somewhat implausible life, rather than having anything particularly interesting to say about courtesanship, Shanghai, confused identity or many of the other themes, and as such it plays on a fairly shallow level. My recommendation? Golden did it first, and Golden does it best. Read Memoirs of a Geisha instead.