This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher
Jamie Ford's novel ought to be required reading for any YA author who is thinking (god forbid) of including a love triangle in their story. This is a tour-de-force of how to do it right if you must do it! Not that this is a YA novel by any means. This is a novel for grown-ups who appreciate intelligent and beautifully-written stories.
It was a charming historical story of an immigrant to North America, coming from a tragically impoverished background in China. It begins in about as depressing a manner as is possible, with a wretchedly poor and starving Chinese mother forced to suffocate her baby daughter and leave her son, appropriately named Yung (although in Chinese the name means brave or perpetual, both appropriate to the character), in a cemetery, for pick-up by an "importer" who transports Chinese children to the US and delivers them into servitude.
The story is told from two alternating perspectives, book-ended by world fairs, Both perspectives are held by the same person, who goes by Ernest despite this not being remotely like his Chinese name, which he takes as his surname, modifying it to Young. The 1902-1911 portion covers his early days traveling to the US and settling in Seattle, and the 1962 portion covers his twilight years where the love of his life is suffering senile dementia evidently brought on by a misspent youth. Here he is married with two intriguing daughters who are leading their own full lives. One of them is a reporter who is interested in his story, and it is this link which keeps us tied to his origins in the US.
I kept reading in reviews written by others that this is based on a true story, but no one goes into any detail as to exactly what it is that's true, so it felt like these reviews were merely parroting what others had written! Here, for the first time, it can be publicly revealed! The truth is that I can find no reference to the truth or consequences of this story on the author's blog which is, I am sorry to report, far more interested in promoting the book than in conveying anything of interest about its historicity, nor is there anything in the book itself to indicate what might have inspired it.
According to http://old.seattletimes.com/html/television/2010080063_kcts17.html there actually was a baby exhibition and one infant, apparently named Ernest, was offered in a raffle, but no one claimed the winning ticket, so the story of an eleven-year-old being raffled to a whore-house while very loosely rooted in real events, seems to be pure fiction.
The 'Author's Note' (which I typically never read anyway) in my ebook copy was blank, so it was of no use in illuminating the 'based on a true story angle'. This web page https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2010/1/29/red-light-history-0210" reveals some details of Seattle's intriguing red light history, but in it, the Tenderloin seems to be the name of a district rather than the name of a specific house as is depicted in the book.
So my best guess (and this is only a guess) is that the truth of the story lies in that it depicts real events (such as world fairs and morality battles), but that none of the details of the Tenderloin (as a bordello), or Ernest, or Fahn or Maisie are true in the sense that they tell any real and specific person's story.
They are true in that god-awful things happened to people in those neighborhoods, but quite honestly this story rather whitewashes the sordid side of a working girl's life in depicting the elegant and refined 'House of Flora' while sweeping under the carpet the bleeding raw open nerveiendings of most imported children's truth in the prostitution business (and it was, and still is, a big business). It also makes no mention either, focused as it is on the Asian-American experience, of the American Indians who were also there.
That said, it does tell a fine tale of how some things might have been for those who got lucky. Ernest is raffled off from his orphanage and ends up at Madam Flora's Tenderloin house of pleasure, where heartbreakingly young prostitutes, most of whom we never get to know, are taught refinement and who 'come out' on their sixteenth birthday, their virginity sold to the highest bidder, whereinafter they take their place as a regular "Gibson Girl" purveying their skills to whichever rich and influential men select them for the night. There may well have been houses of this nature, but my guess is they were few and far between if they existed at all, and most of them were like the one we hear all-too-briefly about from one of the female characters.
But for this novel, that's not the point. The story is about one such fictional house where Ernest, for the first time in his life, paradoxically finds happiness and a family in the good-natured people who live and work there. He makes two close friends: the tomboyish Maisie, and the exotic Fahn, neither of whom is yet 'out'.
The trio bond charmingly, and despite the immorality pervading their every waking moment, they remain innocent between themselves, with nothing more than a stolen first kiss to count as a sin. Since we know from the 1962 portion of the story, that Ernest ends up with one of them, the question, and the author hides it well (or at least he did from me!), is which one, and what happens to the other one. I normally dislike flashbacks, but here they worked perfectly, and were integrated exceedingly-well with what I considered to be the main story set back at the turn of the century.
Since my blog is primarily about writing, I have to say that the writing in general here was very good - well-done and engrossing. There were some parts where it seemed to bog down a little, but overall it was great. I noticed only one or two writing oddities. The first was this phrase: "decked out in a dark black suit" I guess dark black is really black! LOL! "Decked out in a dark gray suit" would have sounded better, but that's a very minor quibble. The only other thing was that author seemed too enamored of this word form, because there were two other instances which felt wrong to me, where the word 'deckled' put in an appearance.
This actually is a word. A deckle is a book press used in hand-made books, and by association has come to describe the rough edge of the open side of the book. I hate those, as it happens because it makes it hard to turn the pages, but the author uses this word in the form of something being 'deckled' with lights and this seemed entirely wrong to me. Decked would have made more sense, or if he'd used deckled to describe the rough ocean surface rather than the lights on the boats floating on it, it would have made more sense. He uses the same word again when he writes, "fairy lights that deckled the storefronts." I think this was wrong, too, and arguably more wrong than the boat lights, but like I said, it's a minor quibble that reasonable people can disagree on if they wish!
That aside, I really liked this book - the way it was written, the pacing, the story, the relationships and the characters. No book is perfect by any means (especially not my own), but you really can't expect a better read than this, told elegantly, paced well, organized beautifully, and with a bitter-sweet tale to tell of a world where women are commodities and rich men can buy pretty much anything they want and it's considered normal, but sometimes if you want something enough, and you are willing to truly love it and bide your time, perhaps you can get it without your acquisition being sordid and demeaning and with it bringing you the Earth instead of costing it to you. I recommend it as a highly worthy read.