“I have come back to the Maple Bridge, Baba, to tell you the story that you asked me to tell you all those years ago, a story you have never heard before.
“I have come to tell you the affairs of my life. They are like five course of a banquet served up one after the other.
“The five tastes have come and gone: there has been spicy, sweet, and sour; there have been tastes that were bitter and salty, and often the tastes have blended together.
“Some have been hard to swallow. Others have been delicious. All have lingered.”
The Courtesan is the unusual and well written debut novel of Canadian born author, Alexandra Curry.
Born to an Austrian mother and English father, Curry has travelled the world – living in Singapore, Taiwan, Austria, and the United States.
Her previous career paths have included teaching, modelling, accountancy and banking. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and two dogs, Emma and Cache.
I was deeply surprised when I found out The Courtesan was her first novel, as I thought that her writing style was very mature and sophisticated.
Curry’s book loosely follows the story of Sai Jinhua, a legendary Chinese historical figure.
There have been many versions of Jinhua’s tale told in her native China – through literature, drama and art. In some adaptions she is vilified as a traitor, in others she is a victim and in others still a hero.
The Courtesan is Curry’s interpretation of Jinhua’s life; mixing historical figures and events with colourful ones of author’s own creation.
The novel is written in third person narrative, much of which is from Jinhua’s perspective.
The telling of the story itself and the way it transitions, I found particularly clever and noteworthy. It is this language selection and structure, that I believe set it apart from other historical fiction of the era.
The beginning of Jinhua’s story does resemble that of Chiyo’s in Memoirs of a Geisha and fans of the novel would certainly enjoy Curry’s The Courtesan.
From her father’s execution in 1881, Jinhua is bound on a journey of self-discovery, depravity and humanity that will take her across the world and back again.
Along the way the story tracks the decline of China’s difficult relations with the West to a climactic explosion in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Suyin, the crippled brothel maid befriended by Jinhua, is most certainly my favourite character of the novel.
Steady, patient and loyal to the end, she is the antithesis of Jinhua’s spirited and excitable character and keeps a check on all her friend’s wild fantasies.
Jinhua herself is not unlikable, but I don’t believe she is a character that will be palatable to everyone. She can be at times naive, selfish and prone to nonsensical escapism.
However, she does have many redeeming qualities founded in her resilience, blind optimism, passion and curiosity.
Overall, this story is a very engrossing read full of twists and is excellently written and constructed. It’s a big thumbs up.
Published in paperback in May 2016 by Twenty7 Books, The Courtesan retails at £7.99. In the US the novel is published by Dutton Books and retails at $16.00.