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Book Review - A Chinese legend comes to the West

Alexandra Curry's debut novel brings history to the present

China's past resonates with the present in The Courtesan, the debut novel by Atlanta writer Alexandra Curry. Spanning several years and foreign locales, the novel tells the story of Sai Jinhua, a real courtesan from the nineteenth century whose life has become the stuff of legend. Like previous storytellers, Curry takes liberties with some of the facts of Jinhua's life but only in order to bring her story to Western readers. The result is an interesting historical and political drama that feels relevant, if not always perfectly clear, to a contemporary reader.

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Curry worked on Wall Street and dabbled in Atlanta real estate before she ever thought of writing. But once she heard about Jinhua, she became determined to tell her story. In 2004, Curry and her husband visited Shanghai, and she overheard a guide speaking about Jinhua, who was the courtesan of one of China's first diplomats to travel to the West before returning home at the onset of the Boxer Rebellion. "I was fascinated," she says. "I said to my husband, 'If I were ever going to write a book — even though I'm never going to write a book — this would be the book that I would want to write.' And he said to me, 'Well why don't you just write it? Why don't you try?'"

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Indeed, she tried. As a novice, Curry had to learn not only how to write literature but also how to write a novel. Fortunately, she received help from experienced writers around Atlanta. "I have been in several writing workshops and writer critique groups, and you don't do something like this by yourself," she says. "You need other peoples' questions, and their feedback, and their criticism."

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Another advantage for Curry while writing the novel was her international background. A Canadian by birth, Curry grew up in Southeast Asia and traveled frequently, which she says, "kind of wakes you up to the fact that there are many ways to see the world." As a result, Curry says that she is interested in the convergence of different cultures, which takes center stage in her version of Jinhua's story.

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Curry's novel, which she calls "gritty," tackles imperialism, Chinese history, and the nation's ongoing relationship with the West. Indeed, the novel opens with Jinhua being sold to a brothel at the age of seven, following her progress as a young courtesan in clinical detail. Jinhua eventually meets a diplomat named Wenqing, and she accompanies him to Vienna as his concubine, encountering an entirely foreign way of life. Jinhua's time in Europe proves to be a powerful experience because it largely opposes the first rule of courtesans: "You do not own yourself." When Jinhua returns to China, sentiment against Western imperialism has reached a boiling point, and she becomes a vector for these intersecting cultures.

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Curry says that Jinhua's story has been exploited for various political purposes for as long as it has been told. But for Curry, telling Jinhua's story in a way that makes sense to contemporary readers in the West was the top priority. "I just let her do the talking," she says. "I gave her a backdrop that made her human in my own terms — that made her a human, I hope, in the reader's terms."

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One of the ways that Curry updates the story is by telling each chapter from the perspective of one of the characters, similar to A Game of Thrones or The Poisonwood Bible. However, the limited perspective of the various narrators can sometimes make reading the novel a challenging experience. It is replete with references to Chinese culture, and although the narrative style is welcoming, the setting remains thoroughly foreign. So when the narrator employs his or her limited point of view to describe an unfamiliar Chinese custom or practice, it often obscures the motivations or actions of the other characters.

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The Courtesan remains an interesting drama about China's history and politics in spite of these stumbling blocks. When she began writing, Curry says that she imagined what it must have been like for a Chinese woman in the nineteenth century to travel to Europe in the midst of her nation's antipathy toward the West. But as the novel reaches beyond this setup, it glimpses at the complex relationship between China and the West that continues to unfold today.

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The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry. Dutton. $26.95. 400 pp.

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