The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry centers on the real-life story of Sai Jinhua. The author reimagines her life set in 1881 and writes as to how she thinks her life would have unfolded. With her the death of her father at the age of 7, Jinhua is sold into prostitution by her cruel stepmother. At the working house she meets Suyin, the closet maternal figure she has in her life, who not only teaches her the ways of a lady, but swears to protect and guide her. Soon after her 12th birthday, she is bought as a child-bride by a rich lord who believes she is the reincarnation of his now-deceased concubine. She travels to Vienna where clashes between the West and the East become all too apparent. This is once again a true story of love, lost, and angst.
Curry's writing first enticed me because she reminded me of the writing styles and techniques of Khaled Hosseini, my favourite author (see below). The first few chapters are beautifully written and focus on Jinhua father's death as well as the events proceeding after it. Her father is beheaded because he "speaks the truth" to the emperor and still after completing this book, no one knows what this truth is. Even the executioner knows he is innocent; the birds do too.
What follows after is very tragic. Jinhua, who idolizes her father, has to bear witness to her father's name being slandered, and is soon sold to a cruel master to work as a prostitute. Everyday she paints a faint red line across her neck, mourning the death of her father. The binding of her feet, a very popular Chinese tradition at the time, was probably the hardest thing to read.
After her time in the working house, the story for me personally, begins its decline. As stated, she moves to Vienna and there she is excited by a priest's fortune that she will meet a "great love." The story loses a lot of interest near the end but it did prompt me to do more research on this remarkable woman.
My thoughts on this book mirror how the Chinese see Jinhua. Some praise her as being a hero in the Boxer Rebellion and others not so much. I think this book has its moments and for a while, I couldn't put it down (even to sleep). Revisiting a whole new world and time in a book has been enriching and reading from what could be considered a marginalized voice is now even more enticing.