"The Courtesan" (Dutton), by Alexandra Curry
Alexandra Curry's debut novel begins with an execution. It's China in 1880 and a man is beheaded. His 7-year-old daughter is left behind — Sai Jinhua. The orphan is quickly sold to an abusive brothel owner who calls her girls "money trees" and teaches them "bed business." Jinhua must fend for herself as she suffers at the hands of Lao Mama. The girl's feet are bound and she begins her transformation to courtesan.
So much feels familiar about "The Courtesan." The real Jinhua was a concubine to a Chinese diplomat and scholar who lived for a time in Berlin. Curry explains she's based her novel "without agenda and without politics" on Jinhua's life. But more than reality-based, Curry's novel covers no new ground. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially here.
It's hard to believe "The Courtesan" is a first novel as Curry masterfully weaves a sweeping story that crosses time and continents. She's clearly done her homework and readers will get lost as Jinhua travels across Europe to Berlin and Vienna, then to China and back.
In the end, Jinhua's description of her life also describes Curry's novel: "I have come here to tell you the affairs of my life. They have been like the five courses 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."
And the beauty of Curry's novel, too, lingers.