At seven, after her mandarin father’s execution, she is sold to a cruel brothel-mistress, who trains her as a “money tree” (prostitute). “You do not own yourself,” the maid Suyin warns her, and their sisterly bond helps them survive.
Surprisingly, an official makes Jinhua his concubine, bringing her to Vienna just as Europeans, hated for their corrupt influence, are dismantling the Chinese empire. Buoyant with curiosity about Austro-Hungarian culture, Jinhua discovers her Western sympathies have a price.
The smooth-as-silk prose, flavored with details of Chinese customs and Jinhua’s favorite mythological stories, heightens the sense that we’re hearing a legend retold. At the same time, her pain and heartbreak anchor the telling in reality.
Multiple viewpoints add dimension and depth. The later sections feel rushed, and the novel doesn’t fully address the reasons for her celebrity, but this creative and haunting interpretation spurs interest in the real Sai Jinhua.
The Courtesan will be published by Dutton next week in hardcover ($26.95, 400pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue. Despite her fame, I hadn't heard of Sai Jinhua before beginning this novel, and it encouraged me to learn more - although (as noted in the book) it's hard to get a true picture of her life because it's difficult to separate history from the legend. This version is one author's interpretation.