The Telegraph
Friday , April 4 , 2014
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The old city of Shanghai with walls and seafront from a 17th-century painting

The Valley of Amazement By Amy Tan, Fourth Estate, £12.99

Amy Tan gets it flawlessly right. All the themes that can call forth correctly attuned appreciation crowd into The Valley of Amazement: mothers, daughters and their hate-love; Asia, America and the intensely traversed in-between; memories and misunderstandings; secret pasts and sordid tortures; escapes, returns, recognitions, reunions — and Men. The search for the precise shade of our ethnicity in our mothers’ gardens has something fashionably painful about it, and the West loves a big dose of exoticism photo-shopped to look like self-exploration. Tan cannot, however, be accused of prancing on the edge of melodrama with these or her other themes; they are quite amazingly true to her life. As the daughter of immigrant Chinese parents brought up in America, not only did she grow up with the agonies and ecstasies of carrying two ends of the map in the sparking nerves and shaping sinews of her mind, but she also went on to uncover huge swathes of her mother’s, and therefore her own, intimate past that had been left in the dark — and in China. So the melodramatic is also real — stranger than fiction in being Life, so to speak. But harping on the same themes since, say, Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter’s Daughter, seems to have brought about a certain weary polish in their presentation, a pitch-perfect recitation that does not always reach evocation.

The focus of this novel is the life of courtesans in Shanghai in the early 20th century, before and after the rise of the new republic and the anti-foreigner movement. In interviews and her acknowledgments in the volume, Tan discusses the extensive research she had undertaken to get this period and segment of life exactly right. In spite of the existence of peripheral material, from the details of rooms, gardens and architecture to conventions of behaviour and dress, there is very little of substance about the actual lives of courtesans in Shanghai during her chosen period. Tan’s engagement with the subject is, once again, part of the rediscovery of her roots. There is a photograph of her grandmother that suggests she may have been a courtesan, or at least dressed up as one. Tan is interested in the many ‘inconsistencies’ in her grandmother’s story; for her the ‘story’ lies in the inconsistencies. The Valley of Amazement is as much about the life, loves and losses of Violet Minturn, the half-American half-Chinese girl whose growing up and later adventures hold the novel together, as about Tan’s own journey into the history and remote regions of the country of her origin and into lost secrets in her family’s past.

The story begins around 1905, when Violet is seen to be growing up in the unusual courtesan house called the Hidden Jade Path, run by her mother, Lucia, where both Chinese men and foreigners are entertained. She thinks she is American till she is disillusioned. Her rebellious struggle with the new dimension in her identity is drowned in the rush of circumstances when she is tricked into separation from her mother and tamed into becoming a courtesan too, while her mother sails for America. Violet’s longing for independence and search for love shape her life. In true Amy Tan mode, crucial events in it are repeated when it is her turn to be a mother.

The storyline is suitably stifling, and it may be the heaviness of Tan’s research that denies it emancipation into the large canvas of space and time that she uses. The 21st century can return to the 20th with pleasure, but reviving the triteness inherent in the basic tale — arranged in overlapping circles and voices in approved modern manner — of the fiery woman turned magnificent courtesan secretly longing for real love is a bit of an anti-climax. The Men fall into place too, the good lover and the bad, the abusive husband, the rich and handsome rake, the sentimental devotee. The force of tradition — the Family — is an excellent excuse for desertion and deception. It is romantically convenient too, for it leaves the way open for this or that Man to turn over a new leaf at any point.

The romantic appeal is intensified by the strange painting called “The Valley of Amazement”, a copy of which is carried around by Violet’s father, the copyist pretending to be a painter. Tan’s encounter with paintings of the Hudson River School, particularly of Carl Blechen and Albert Bierstadt, inspired this touch. The painting signifies the dream of distant happiness for some women, and a sense of the innermost self for others. For the artist, it symbolizes both frustrated dreams and sharp practices. Although the painting recurs as motif and clue throughout the tale, it never really merges into the narrative, hovering over and around it like an afterthought. In a similar way, the sudden insertion of Violet’s mother’s backstory feels as though Tan was insecure about having made her point.

The worst ‘fancy’ touch is the long treatise on the wiles and arts a ‘first class’ courtesan must learn, spoken uninterruptedly by Magic Gourd, former courtesan and Violet’s mentor-attendant. If fine sex is so boring it is no wonder that the sex scenes seem mostly viewed through mauve-coloured glasses, with erotic fantasies channelled into cloyingly conventional descriptions and passion shaved completely of its prickle. But the description of the growing Violet, watching secretly with equal fascination and incomprehension the contortions of the courtesans and their patrons in her mother’s house is both humorous and appealing, while the strangely-lit, rough, desolate and frightening sequence of Violet and Magic Gourd’s stay in Moon Pond village is perhaps the most gripping section of the 589-page book.