Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry


Rating: WARTY!

I had a really hard time getting into this at all, and it wasn't helped by the fact that three of the first four women we met were just plain obnoxious. This was an odd ARC because it was over three hundred pages, but the lines were very widely spaced. When I looked at it on the iPad, it looked like an early children's chapter book, with very large letters and widely spaced lines, and it would not allow me to change the size of the text at all. In an ebook, this really doesn't matter that much, but if this book went to a large print run, I couldn't help but wonder at how many trees would die for this profligacy of white space!

The novel is set in historical China, in 1881. That's the same year that Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell joined forced to create the Oriental Telephone Company, Alexander II of Russia is blown up, Billy the Kid escapes from jail, president James Garfield is assassinated, Pablo Picasso is born, and the Gunfight at the OK Corral takes place. The first woman to appear has lost her husband. Well she didn't actually lose him. She knows where he is, but his body is lacking a head. He was decapitated for some perceived infraction or other. He had a concubine as well as his "First Wife", and it was this concubine who had given him his daughter, Jinhua, whom he loved dearly.

His first wife resented this daughter just as much as she resented the concubine who had died delivering Jinhua into the world. Now that both of the child's parents were dead, this woman feels no obligation whatsoever to the poor girl, and she kept her locked away for a day and a half while she decided whether to kill her or not. Jinhua was saved, if you want to think of it that way, by a woman who came by with a contract offering to buy the girl. She takes Jinhua and sells her on to a brothel keeper.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary for the time period here, especially not for a nation which seems, even today, to bestow no value upon female children. What struck me as really off, though, was the words spoken by the woman with the contract: "Contract," she said. "You look. Tomorrow I come back.". This woman wasn't speaking English, in which case we might have believed she would speak like that if her English was poor. She was speaking Chinese to another Chinese woman. Why would she speak "pidgin Chinese"?! It made no sense to me. I guess you could argue that one was speaking Cantonese and the other Mandarin, but really?

That aside, and tolerating the problem of how slowly this story moved, it got off to an interesting start, forcing me to consider what would happen to this seven-year-old girl, but whereas I was expecting the story to move and we would soon see this girl later in life and follow her story from there, the story of her childhood dragged on and on, and endlessly on, depressingly like a prologue which didn't know when to stop 'prologging'. I don't do prologues. They're antiquated and irritating!

Parts of the story were entertaining and well-written, with some delightful words used to evoke sounds, but for the most part, the story really slunk along interminably for me, and it was a chore to read it. I eventually gave up after getting a little way into part two, which was about a quarter the way through it, being unable to face reading any more.

One thing I found to be particularly annoying was a habit I've encountered with other writers. It's that of using a foreign phrase and then immediately following it with the English translation. I can't speak for all readers obviously, but this just irritates the heck out of me. I wish authors would either avoid the foreign phrase altogether, or at least use it a way which makes it clear what's meant so that this tedious and rather spastic repetitiveness can be avoided.

I understood that this was to be a story about a young girl's unfortunate circumstances after the death of her father. It's one reason I chose to review this one, but it was an unwelcome chore to have to read a quarter of the book unleavened by anything approaching joy, pleasure, or even comfort, or of seeing any sort of indication that the story was going to ever take off.

I did not find myself even warming to, let alone liking Jinhua, the main character. She seriously lacked depth, and it was quite evident to me that none was likely to be on the cards when I left-off reading this. I do think this author has an innate talent for story-telling which has not yet been properly realized. Hopefully it will out in the near future. For me, it's not ready for prime time yet.


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