Sunday 5 January 2014

Book Club: The Valley Of Amazement and January's Pick

Happy Western New Year, here's to 2014.

I assume you've read December's book club pick, the historical novel The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, HarperCollins.

Since much of The Valley Of Amazement is set in Shanghainese courtesan houses it is often concerned with sex - you might be tempted to flip through for the clean bits - but it's not a sad, wish-fulfilment fantasy, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, and nor is it titillating. Rather, to me, in our age of Internet porn where every teenager with access to a computer and a modem can be assumed to have seen stuff that only 5 or 10 years ago would have been considered shockingly transgressive, it all seemed sweetly innocent, and old-fashioned. It made me feel nostalgic for the days when what Tan’s courtesans tweely call Two Scholars of the Night was considered outrageously decadent, whereas now I bet One Scholar of the Night is regularly demanded by porn-addled boyfriends of girls who think they must ape porn stars to have any hope of keeping a man - although perhaps two scholars must still be purchased from professionals?    

Again since it is about the world of courtesans, the novel is deeply concerned with money.  In Asia, the no money no honey continent of assorted male and female love entrepreneurs, we are of course familiar with the notion that men are meal tickets, women have no value unless they are young and pretty nymphs, romantic love is a luxury only the lucky few can afford, and so on and so forth.  Accordingly, Tan’s strong emphasis on the courtesans’ attitudes to love and money struck me as old hat - although I suppose they might be an eye-opener to some readers in the West? As to whether treating yourself as a commodity is a good idea, Tan of course pays lip service to the important pieties - and they are important - but try persuading a Thai tart, or a Hong Kong tai tai sincerity is more important than a healthy bank balance, and surely you deserve the mirthful scorn she's likely to heap upon you?

Once this novel moves away from sex and money, what’s left? Eve from Hong Kong thinks not much:

This is overly familiar Tan territory: a tale of difficult mother-daughter relationships.  I found I have grown bored of this plot.

I have not grown bored of the plot, but I have to say I thought it ploddingly handled in this particular novel. Nor do I mind predictability, but I thought Tan laboured so hard to an obvious dénouement of her Lucia / Violet / Flora tangle that it felt sometimes as if she were delaying the inevitable just for the sake of filling a few more pages. Along the way, I found many of the incidents incredible, in particular the manner in which Violet and Lucia became separated.  

Devika from Singapore was not happy either:

I didn't like or respect the characters. They never seemed to grow or mature.

I don't mind spending time with characters I don't like, but Tan's failed to get under my skin. I agree Violet seemed to retain an adolescent attitude to Lucia well into adulthood, even after she had herself become a mother, but I felt this was an aspect of keeping the plot going to fill the pages, as mentioned above.

Cathy from Denpasar was more enthusiastic:

Tan provides a wonderful insight into the world of the courtesan, her descriptions are vivid, rich and detailed.  The pace is leisurely, slowly familiarising the reader with the courtesan houses, rather than rushing her. Those who enjoyed Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha will probably enjoy this story too.

The courtesans’ costumes, the luxurious interiors of their houses, and their habits, customs and jealousies are certainly rendered in meticulous and interesting detail. I enjoyed Tan’s lingering accounts of these things, and I never felt her evidently careful historical research overwhelmed other aspects of the novel.      

January’s Pick

Next month I suggest we read Phillip Y. Kim’s Nothing Gained, another novel much concerned with money. Phillip Y. Kim, a banker who lives and works in Hong Kong, has twenty-five years’ experience of the international financial industry, and Nothing Gained draws on his insider knowledge.

Nothing Gained zooms in on the global financial crisis. A thriller, it is set in Hong Kong’s glitzy business restaurants and boardrooms, it offers an insight into the human cost of life in the fast lane, and shows how easily wealth and excess can slip away. 

After a prominent Hong Kong expat banker drowns in what appears to be a fluke accident, his wife, Cheryl, must confront the harsh reality that the man she loved was leading a double life, and that the rarefied world she moved in was a sham.

Forced to protect her family from unscrupulous business associates, Cheryl begins both to unravel the mystery of her husband’s death, and to unpick his complicated business affairs. Her friends prove to be as volatile as the stock market, their promises worthless now the money has dried up, but even as they desert her she doggedly pursues the truth. She discovers fraud on a scale that threatens to topple a prominent player in the financial industry.  This brings her into danger.  Will she be able to track down the one person who can save her?

Nothing Gained is published by Penguin China, in paperback, priced in local currencies.  Discussion of Nothing Gained will be posted after Chinese New Year, on Sunday February 9.  Please do get in touch to share your thoughts.