The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
26th Nov 2013
The thought of settling down to a 600 page family saga full of feminine tears and tantrums could be enough to make one flinch. Can Amy Tan’s historical Goliath of a novel, The Valley of Amazement hold our attention through the generations?
Violet Minturn has an identity crisis of indescribable magnitude. Half-American, half-Chinese, she spends her childhood in Shanghai floating around her American mother’s skirts and speaking a variety of English, Shanghainese and ‘Pidgin’.
As the daughter of the madam of a first class courtesan house, Violet lives in a twilight world, spying on the courtesans and their sordid activities and playing childish, pampered games with her pet cat Carlotta. She is a contradiction, belonging neither to the superstitious Shanghainese world nor quite possessing the pioneering Yankee habits of her mother.
Betrayed by gangsters and her mother’s naivety, she is forced into the role of the virgin courtesan, one she never dreamed she would inhabit and where her ability to blur the lines between East and West, dream and reality, become both her lifeline and her business.Betrayed by gangsters and her mother’s naivety, she is forced into the role of the virgin courtesan, one she never dreamed she would inhabit and where her ability to blur the lines between East and West, dream and reality, become both her lifeline and her business.
In her seventh and longest novel to date, New York Times bestselling author Tan enters familiar territory and explores themes of identity, love, betrayal, tradition and the unfathomable depths of emotion that exist between mother and daughter.
Inspired by intriguing family photos depicting her grandmother in surprisingly elegant and risqué attire for the day, Tan is comfortable with her topic. Witty, shocking and undeniably compelling, she is an author who knows her craft.
Shanghai courtesan culture is a sure-fire recipe for oodles of glamour and wonderment, and happily Tan delivers. With the delicate balance of careful research and artistic license that good historical fiction requires, this novel lends a glimpse into the lives of resilient, believable female characters and their joys and sorrows.
But despite their strength and in frightening comparison with the baby girls who are still discarded across China even today, the reliance of Violet and her female companions on men is made quite clear, and boy is it frustrating.
Although the fatalism displayed by the characters in this novel can become slightly irritating at times, is complete sympathy with our heroines always necessary?
Each and every character is beautifully, realistically flawed. They are naive, arrogant and just plain stupid at times, but Tan portrays each and every one with care and leaves the reader with a clear grasp and acceptance of Violet’s imperfect world and the fools who inhabit it.
That said, is 600 pages a little excessive? A little. Falling into the trap of many novels of its size, there are small portions of vacuous narrative that sometimes feel a little bit like filler, and her mother’s enlightening, interweaving narrative only appears almost two-thirds of the way into the story. All the same, Tan manages her sizeable cast list well and there are few moments of confusion for such an ambitious tale.
Is The Valley of Amazement ‘amazing’ then? Not quite, but it is both entertaining and deeply moving. Despite a lacklustre finale, this novel has ‘film adaptation’ written all over it. Now, who’s up for playing the virgin courtesan?