Part tragic fairy tale, part historical overview, this novel is based on the life of legendary Chinese courtesan Jinhua, who's already been the subject of Chinese operas, ballets, and plays.
Atmospheric but unsettled, Curry’s debut develops the tale of an orphan girl sold into prostitution at age 7 into a larger, more poetic portrait of her struggles with destiny as a grown woman in an era of political upheaval. Jinhua’s beloved father is beheaded on the emperor’s orders as the story opens. Her mother is also dead, and pitiless First Wife sells the innocent girl to monstrous Lao Mama, who puts her to work as a prostitute, with broken feet and compliant manners when it comes to “bed business.” The only solace Jinhua finds is in the care of her maid, Suyin. The two girls comfort each other in the bleak brothel where Jinhua will spend the next six years, until bought by Sub-chancellor Hong to be his courtesan, under the disapproving eye of his wife. When Hong is sent on a diplomatic mission to Vienna, Jinhua goes too, opening herself to the experience, learning German, and falling in love with a dashing Prussian count. But there is no happy ending. Three years later, Jinhua reappears in Peking running an upscale brothel for foreigners, with the aid of Suyin, until the Boxer uprising destroys almost everything. Curry’s storytelling glides over mysteries and gaps—in keeping, perhaps, with the Jinhua legend, which has many versions. The overall effect is intriguing yet inconsistent, with Jinhua’s times and circumstances vividly evoked but her own personality remaining indistinct.
The patchy but brightly detailed story of a woman’s efforts to be “curious and virtuous and wise” despite the oppressive forces surrounding her.