A new book by Amy Tan is always a treat and this new one is no exception. The Valley of Amazement (Fourth Estate) is the beautiful-harsh, bitter-sweet (in that signature Tan style) tale of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up at Hidden Jade Path, fin de siecle Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house. Like Shanghai, Violet is a beguiling mix of Chinese and European influences.
Violet’s American mother owns and runs the establishment and Violet lives a life of privilege. Revolution and skullduggery separate Violet from her mother and the safety of the Hidden Jade Path’s boudoirs, and she finds herself in training to be a courtesan. Both Chinese and American, Violet moves between these cultural worlds, often not particularly welcome in either. She becomes a shrewd businesswoman who deals in seduction and illusion. But she, like us, is curious about just what caused her mother to land up in Shanghai and Tan expertly unfolds the various layers of family history, while following Violet’s life ( where the family history seems destined to play out again and again) in the tumultuous early twentieth century.
Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement dramatises the collapse of China’s imperial dynasty and the secret life of the courtesan house. It made me think of Alan Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (Vintage). One of Tan’s great abilities is creating such interesting and believable characters – you believe that you might be listening to a tale told by real people, swept along by historical events. This is a really lovely read, beautifully written, by turns gripping and exciting, with an intriguing melancholy undertow. An excellent addition to Tan’s remarkable chronicles of women living through incredible times of change in a China that seems almost mythical.