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BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

  

I went to see Amy Tan speak at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago, and bought The Valley of Amazement then. It was her first book in eight years and, like many of her earlier works such as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, was inspired by her own Chinese heritage. 

At almost 600 pages, the book is not a light read and this may explain why it sat on my to-be-read bookshelf for four years without ever being picked up. Every year, as the Sydney Writers’ Festival approaches once more, I try and read any books I bought there in previous years so that I don’t feel so guilty about buying another dozen or so. My own trip to China, and my desire to read novels set there, moved The Valley of Amazement to the top of the pile. 

Spanning more than forty years, The Valley of Amazement is a sweeping, evocative family epic that tells the story of a half-Chinese, half-American girl who is kidnapped and sold into a Shanghai courtesan’s house at the tender age of fourteen. Unable to escape, she is trained in the ancient art of seduction before her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. Strong-willed, impetuous, and determined, Violet becomes one of the city’s top courtesans before she falls in love with a rich American. He is trapped in a loveless marriage, but he and Violet make a life for themselves in Shanghai and have a daughter together.

Tragedy and drama follow in a long chain of events, as Violet’s life is affected by betrayal, revolution and war. The most pivotal moments in 20th century Chinese history are brought to life on the page, from the dissolution of the imperial dynasty to the rise of the Republic. Some of Violet’s adventures seem contrived merely for the chance to examine another aspect of Chinese culture and society, but Amy Tan’s writing style is so engaging this is easily forgiven. 

At her session at the Sydney Writers Festival, which moved me to buy the book, Amy Tan explained that she was inspired to write The Valley of Amazement after seeing a photograph of Shanghai courtesans in a book. She realised that the costumes worn by the courtesans was identical to an outfit worn by her grandmother. She later discovered that no ‘respectable’ woman would ever have gone to a Western photographic studio. She began to wonder if her grandmother had once been a courtesan, and what her life would have been like. Although she was never able to discover the truth, that moment of wondering became the impetus for writing her novel.

Amy Tan's depiction of the life of a Shanghai courtesan world is colourful, bawdy, funny, and heartbreaking. I was at times furious at both Violet and her mother for their stupidity in trusting bad men so easily, but then also uneasily aware that I may well have made the same mistakes, given the circumstances. Violet’s longing for love and freedom is surely universal, and China in the early 20th century was not an easy place to be a woman. 

For another great read set in China, check out my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 




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