Fourth Estate £18.99

Book Review: The Valley of Amazement, By Amy Tan

 

Amy Tan has made her name, with novels such as The Joy Luck Club (1987) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2000), writing about difficult mother-daughter relationships, the wobbly connections between America and modern China, and family secrets. In her seventh novel, set mostly in Shanghai as it evolves through the 20th century, she has surpassed herself.

It opens in 1905, as a stunningly self-assured seven-year-old named Violet Minturn bursts on to the page. “When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race and manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”

The precocious Violet is in for a rude awakening. Her adored mother falls for a feckless charmer – the first domino in a cascade of strong women who seem doomed to be taken in by scoundrels – and Violet soon finds out that she is half-Chinese, wholly abandoned, and waiting for her own “defloration” to be auctioned in a courtesan house not quite so first-class as the one she has so haughtily observed.

This is a world in which women are sold and their names changed to suit the whim of whoever owns them. Violet becomes Zizi, a courtesan whose only friend and hope of survival appears – in a chapter reminiscent of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha – in the form of her old friend Magic Gourd. Women’s friendships are the only constant, where even mothers cannot be relied upon and men are worse than useless.

In a typically Tan scenario, Violet’s life echoes her mother’s, and 14 years later her own daughter is tricked from her, despite her fiercely protective love for her. “The Chinese midwife solemnly announced that my baby was a girl ... I cried for the pain she would share with me.” The narrative follows Violet’s journey – literally up mountain and metaphorically through the valley of the title – to find her mother and daughter and a place for herself between two cultures. But the real weight of the story lies in Violet’s establishing her identity somewhere between east and west, when each disenfranchises women equally.

Three generations of women must struggle to maintain their identity and dignity in the same version of a passive fight, expressed by Violet’s teenaged daughter:  “... it was stupid that I would let myself die just because I hated them. I knew what I had to do to escape. I would be the good girl who lived a false life.” The question is, how long can a woman play the passive good girl before all her fight is extinguished?

Tan’s language throughout is replete with sumptuous detail – from the ominous “peonies the size of babies’ heads” in chapter one, to the rather more gruesome details of bound feet and formal deflorations later on. So, stark historical facts stand out: “There were over fifteen hundred first class houses,” Violet mentions at one point.

Tan claims that she began this work of fiction after she saw a photograph of her own grandmother in a traditional courtesan’s costume, and wondered ....

She has by no means exhausted her supply of fictional women who pass to each other, through the generations, a determination not to be broken, no matter what. This valley is a productive furrow to plough.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test