THE COURTESAN - Alexandra Curry
Dutton (Hardcover)
ISBN 13: 978-0-525-95513-9
September 2015
Women's Fiction

China and Austria, 1881 to 1905

Born in 1881 to her father's second wife, or courtesan, seven-year-old Sai Jinhua is set adrift after her father is beheaded for displeasing the Emperor.  First Wife casts her out of the home by selling her to a child broker, who in turn, sells her into a brothel.  In 1881 China, women are possessions, kept inside their houses, away from the sight of anyone passing along the street.  Jinhua, at only seven years old, has only the memory of her gentle father and his stories that now keep her company as she is transported to her new home, and then, into her future.  When she arrives at The Hall of Round Moon and Passionate Love, or the brothel of a woman they call Lao Mama, Jinhua begins her new life, where she will live out her first years with six other concubines and a handful of servants.

As her story moves forward, Jinhua has to submit to the horrors of foot binding and instruction in "bed business," or the activities that pleasure the men who frequent the brothel.  Always under the cruel scrutiny of Lao Mama, Jinhua's every move and activity is watched.  On her first night in this new life, occupying the bed of a concubine who committed suicide, Jinhua takes a tube of lipstick and draws a thin red line around the bottom of her neck as both a penance and a tribute to her father.  She will continue to mark herself this way until her death years later.

Jinhua meets Suyin, a crippled servant girl who works in Loa Mama's brothel, and becomes her new friend.  As the days pass and the girls grow older, Suyin educates Jinhua in the ways of Loa Mama.  The years pass, until a Chinese official, Sub-chancellor Hong, comes into the brothel searching for a substitute for his favorite concubine, who has died.  Hong chooses Jinhua and she becomes his new wife.  They travel to Austria, where Jinhua lives behind the closed doors of their apartment.  The maid, Resi, teaches Jinhua to speak German, and they begin to leave the house for little excursions into the city, an activity forbidden by husband Hong.  Proper Chinese custom dictates that Jinhua stay inside, always locked behind the doors of her suite.  But Jinhua wants to see what is beyond those double doors and past the bottom of the stairs.

Set in the years of the Qing Dynasty, THE COURTESAN is the re-telling of a real woman, Sai Jinhua, who was forced into prostitution as a child, became a concubine to a Chinese official, and traveled to Europe, where she learned to speak other languages and began to know more things of the world while she secretly became an independent person.  In this novel, our Jinhua follows the path of the real COURTESAN.  She learns about the world, and her eyes are opened when she falls in love with Count Alfred von Waldersee while on a forbidden excursion into the city with Resi.  When Hong is called back to China, fate intervenes, and Jinhua is forced to return alone to the city of her birth, Suzhou.  She finds her friend Suyin, and makes a life for herself, all the while searching for a lost love, and enduring the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion.

THE COURTESAN is the debut novel of new author Alexandria Curry.  This book is a beautiful retelling of Sai Jinhua's celebrated story.  It is not always a happy story, Jinhua endures many hardships and horrors in her life, and subsequently the pages are filled with the sadness of her plight.  The pages depict a colorful picture of low born women during the years of the Qing Dynasty.  Chinese women were considered to be merely man's possessions, rather than their own persons.  You must have a certain respect for those women who held the strength to become prostitutes running their own businesses in a world that saw them as less than their male counterparts.

The pages of THE COURTESAN are an accurate depiction and tell a beautiful, yet tragic story.

Diana Risso