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.