Another beautifully rendered Chinese tale by Hill (The Drink and Dream Teahouse, 2001), this time centered on the fate of a concubine who gains fame as a poet during the Tang Dynasty.
Five-year-old Little Hope is orphaned in a.d. 850 when her mother, the concubine of an imperial marshal who never returns to the fort where they live in Changan province, kills herself in despair. Concubines are little more than slaves, the daughter learns. Despite the hopes of her scholarly foster parents, who teach her to read and write, Lily, as she is renamed, is sold at age 15 to the rich (and married) Minister Li. Lily and Li fall in love, and for a short while, she is deliriously happy at their Peach Blossom Palace. Then his wife, son and new concubine come to stay. Instead of resigning herself to her fate, Lily rebels. First she seeks asylum in a monastery, where she learns a great deal from Abbot Zhao and from a visiting poet, Wen Tingyun. Eventually, she sets off to make her living as a poet in the capital city of Changan, fashioning verses for parties and festivals. She’s still in love with Minister Li, but the two can’t effect a reconciliation, although her passion drives her poetry. His jealous wife has Lily arrested and tried, but Li arranges her release. Lily has a child by another lover, and desperation at being separated from her son drives her to a fit of angry insanity, sealing a doom that even Minister Li can’t alter. Interspersed with Lily’s coming-of-age narrative are future glimpses of the elderly Li: sad, lonely and ineffectual. Based on the real life of legendary poet Yu Xuanji, set against a backdrop of a grand, beleaguered dynasty struggling to defend itself against “barbaric invaders,” the novel is notable for Hill’s masterly craftsmanship and remarkably sympathetic sense of character.
Skilled fiction of vibrant immediacy and majestic scope.