Book Review: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

Book Review: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

Released Sep 8 2015 by Dutton

In 1881, seven-year-old Jinhua has enjoyed a fairly good life. Her father has refused to have her feet bound and has shown her nothing but love. Then he displeases the emperor and is beheaded.

Jinhua’s wife is not interested in caring for the daughter of her husband’s mistress and sells the girl for a handful of silver coins. Jinhua ends up in a brothel where she is taught the “bed business” with poses like Fishes Eye to Eye, White Tiger Pouncing, and Silkworms Tenderly Entwined. But there is little tender about bed business, as she discovers when she is given to her first client at the age of twelve.

She is told repeatedly that her life is not her own. When she is bought again by a man who thinks she is the reincarnation of his former mistress, she accompanies him on his ambassadorial trips to the West.

I had such hopes for this novel. I requested an ARC from the publisher because the synopsis described a woman’s journey from culture to culture and eventually to herself. Although she does eventually lead her own life, she does so by returning to the brothel after the owner dies and the business passes on to her best friend. There she is raped during the Boxer revolution, her friend is also violated, and her friend gives up her life to save Jinhua’s. So she doesn’t really ever own her own life.

This I could have lived with if the writing had been stronger. The publisher described a fairytale like prose that promised a depth that rewarded a careful reader…exactly the kind of thing I enjoy, and exactly the kind of prose that can fit exceptionally well with historical fiction.

But here the execution is weak. The prose is too spare, and the details tend to be repeated. The repetition does not highlight symbolic or important elements, so it comes off as a weakness in the author’s research.

I’m begrudgingly rating this at 3 stars because, although I would normally rank this as a 2 or 2.5, I recognize that a number of readers will enjoy this a great deal. Just be aware of the flaws before you spend time with this work.

3 begrudging stars

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