‘The Courtesan’ by Alexandra Curry, Book Review

Until recently I thought that I hated historical fiction. The only widely known historical fiction books I had ever been wheedled into venturing near were those of the medieval variety- complete with “bodice ripping romance and intrigue”. True, many of the books I enjoy are set in another time period- because I also rarely read contemporary novels- but they aren’t what I would class as purely historical fiction. However, it turns out that I am interested in historical fiction. Just not of the British historical variety. No, the historical fiction that interests me is set in the east: The Garden of Evening Mists, Memoirs of a Geisha, and now The Courtesan.

The Courtesan, Curry’s first book (which is very hard to believe), is set in China, running from 1881-1905. In 1881 the protagonist- Jinua- loses her father when he executed. Jinua is the daughter of a courtesan, long since dead, and her father’s “first wife”, ultimately decides to sell Jinua. To a brothel. Which is where this historical fiction gets a little darker than it already is. Sai Jinua is a figure of legend, and her life colourful to say the least. Other historical figures too are woven into the text- such as the Austrian Empress Sisi- with allusions to rumours surrounding their own histories. Needless to say, boatloads of research went into writing this novel.

The novel deals with the sex trade, rape, execution, duty, family, love, remembrance, trauma, entrapment vs freedom (especially when you consider the foot binding tradition, something I knew very little about before this book)- all against a major historical and political backdrop. At one point, not to give too much away, the story is relocated to Vienna. This was a particularly beautiful part of the novel, and a point at which you gain a better insight into Jinua’s character.

I won’t lie, seeing the path that Jinua believes her life will take, verses the path it does take, is awful. The judgements of other characters are especially harsh in places, and I couldn’t help but consider how Jinua’s life might have been a mirror of theirs, had her father not been executed. The fact that Curry captures the voice of both the seven year old Jinua at the opening of the novel, right up to the young woman of around thirty years old at the end, doing so seamlessly and convincingly, only suggests an immense amount of talent on the part of her writing.

However, I did find the structure of the novel hard to read at first. It jumps from character to character with each chapter. At first I felt my attention was being moved and then refocused too rapidly, but eventually you do settle into this, and Curry’s smooth prose makes it easier to warm to the structure.  The characters we hear from are, for the most part, major characters. With many being given a voice, you are sometimes not allowed to entirely hate a character you at first did. You may not be fond of them, but you can feel pity for them.

The ending comprises a sudden burst of action in the fictional story, linked to the historical goings-on in the China of that time. One of the key moments in the ending I saw coming a split second before it happened, which in an extremely morbid way, was fairly satisfying. I like to be surprised when reading a book, and it doesn’t often happen.

Rarely will I prioritise reading over sleep, but I couldn’t stop until I had finished the chapter I was immersed in every night. I wholeheartedly recommend this strangely beautiful book.


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