Title: The Courtesan
Author: Alexandra Curry
Publisher: Dutton [imprint of Penguin Random House]
Date Published: September 8, 2015
Sai Jinhua is only seven-years-old when her father is executed and leaves her all alone. As the daughter of her father’s adored concubine, she may have been his treasure, but his first wife does not see her in the same way. Left in ruins with a girl she despises, she sells young, sheltered Jinhua for seven silver coins. Jinhua is eventually sold to a brothel and her life takes an ugly turn. From having a father who refused to let anyone bind his little girl’s feet, she has her feet broken and destroyed. For their investment in her, she is expected to become a “money tree” at the brothel when she reaches the ripe old age of twelve. Her only joy at this time in her life is her friendship with the crippled maid (crippled by a foot-binding gone wrong) at the brothel, who becomes her sister.
The Courtesan is a beautifully written novel inspired by the real-life courtesan Sai Jinhua. She lived during a tumultuous time in China’s history (end of the Qing dynasty, the Boxer rebellion, and invasion by European powers, for example) and tended to find herself in the middle of it. Eventually she is taken out of the brothel and an old, peculiar scholar makes her into his concubine. With him she travels the world. He is named the ambassador from China to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and while he dreads leaving the homeland, Jinhua flourishes abroad. She tries her hardest to learn about this new world while her husband will not allow her to leave the house or take guests. However, little by little Jinhua starts to find her freedom.
Curry takes many liberties with the life of Jinhua, but there is not much concrete known about her life in the first place. She has become a figure of legend in China where people debate the veracity of almost every aspect of her life. I wasn’t bothered by this, though. Curry embraces this mysteriousness in the novel. She skips time periods in Jinhua’s life and at times (especially towards the end of novel) the novel feels like a series of elongated vignettes and poetic moments. This novel excels in my favorite part of historical fiction novels, which is crafting a character that feels real. Sometimes this genre gets so bogged down by accuracy that it neglects to make these legendary figures feel human and to give context for their world and actions.
This novel is truly about the search for freedom. Jinhua was owned for most of her life. She was either paying off a huge debt to a brothel or being a concubine to a man who saw her as something she wasn’t. She pays some huge prices for this throughout the novel. Her strife is mirrored by her friend, Suyin, who does not have the luxury/curse of being beautiful and desired. While Jinhua is the lead character without question, Suyin does play an important role in the novel and without her I feel that it would’ve been a lesser book.
Cover Critique: It’s so beautiful. I love the painting they chose for the cover. She looks so guarded and shy, while still being beautiful and intriguing. I also really like the title and author’s name on those two strokes of paint. The painting behind them is so realistically done and perfect, and those two slashes show a impulsive and emotional quality to the book.
Quick Version: The Courtesan is a book about a near-mythic, mysterious, controversial figure of Sai Jinhua. She went from young “money tree” at a brothel to a woman who traveled the world and influenced key political figures in early 20th century China. Curry weaves her tale with a focus on poetic language and immersing the reader into Jinhua’s emotions and experiences. I sadly didn’t know anything at all about Jinhua before reading this book and I’m left with a desire to learn more, which is something that all good historical fiction does.
Score: 5 stars