The Valley of Amazement
A Book Review
By RACHEL KUNJUMMEN PAULOSE
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 16, 2014) —“The Valley of Amazement” is Amy Tan’s story of an early twentieth century Shanghai prostitute, Violet Minturn. It is a disappointing production, eight years in the making, by an author justly admired for her groundbreaking work in describing the Asian American experience, most notably with her breakout novel, “The Joy Luck Club.”
Violet is the child of an American expatriate, Lucretia Minturn of San Francisco, and a Chinese man, Lu Shing. But Lu’s family refuses to acknowledge Lucretia and Violet, and Lu abandons Lucretia.
Lucretia names her daughter for her favorite flower, although Lucretia’s mother despises violets and dismisses them as weeds. The description foreshadows the bleak landscape awaiting the women of this novel.
Lucretia sets up a brothel, which she prefers to think of as a business club to facilitate interaction between Chinese and Western businessman. Lucretia calls her prostitutes “courtesans,” selectively screens their johns, and assembles a large staff to take care of the various needs of a high end house of prostitution. She raises Violet in the brothel, which she calls “Hidden Jade Path.”
Violet’s challenges begin in childhood. She first rejects, but later grapples with her Eurasian status in a city and at a time where a biracial heritage is not considered an advantage. Violet is forced to leave school because of the taunts of other children who believe she is tarnished by the fact that Violet’s mother is a pimp. She grows up in a house where her only companions are prostitutes and a ferocious pet cat.
Life becomes wretchedly worse, however, when one of her mother’s lovers sells a fourteen year old Violet into sex slavery just as Lucretia boards a ship to return to San Francisco. Violet’s tale then degenerates into a series of endless terrible tragedies. She struggles to survive the horrific physical and emotional abuse of sex slavery, which the book depicts in graphic detail.
A brief respite from the daily terror appears when Edward, an American living in China, takes Violet into his house as his mistress. Violet bears him a child, Flora. However, Edward dies all too soon. Edward’s American wife travels to China to seize Flora, to whom Edward has left his estate.
Violet chooses to become a prostitute. As youthful as she is, Violet realizes she will not always be desired in the competitive world of high end prostitution. Violet thinks she has found an escape route in a farmer poet, Perpetual. She enters a disastrous union as the third concubine of the abusive Perpetual.
Eventually, she escapes from Perpetual and begins to try to set her life aright. Violet takes a job in business, embarks on a relationship that leads to a relatively stable marriage, and seeks out her long lost mother and child.
Tan deserves credit for portraying some of the horrors of human trafficking, including the terrible abuse of very young girls sold into sex slavery. However, the exceedingly lengthy book (nearly 600 pages) suffers from numerous problems that nearly smother the light Tan has shone on the dark problem of human slavery.
The plot suffers from lack of depth and credibility. Not once, but three times, the book depicts a purportedly devoted mother handing over her children, only to see them kidnapped. Twice, the book portrays a kindly American man who steps in to save a damsel in distress, only to be killed off. Fraudulent birth certificates and death certificates abound, with predictably dire results.
The female characters careen from one hopeless situation to the next, exercising little rational autonomy over their lives. While some might explain this as a realistic portrayal of the plight of women, and particularly women of color, in the early twentieth century, the author simultaneously describes her female actors as headstrong fighters bucking the trends of an oppressive world.
The actions of Violet and other women, however, are not consistent with the author’s words. The women are snookered, again and again, by charlatans and predators. Lucretia runs her brothel with her iron fist in a velvet glove, but when word reaches her that her only daughter has purportedly died in the care of a man Lucretia herself acknowledges as sketchy, she does not question the highly unusual circumstances.
Similarly, Violet never challenges Edward’s decision to keep Violet’s name off Flora’s birth certificate, despite the tragedy created by Violet’s own mangled birth certificate. Sadly, more examples exist. The portrayal of these characters thus seems less than authentic.
Moreover, the book’s dialogue is too often reduced to the level of a Harlequin romance novel. A writer of Amy Tan’s prodigious talent can do better.
Amy Tan is an acclaimed author who has already made her mark on the writing world. While this book may well become a commercial success because of Tan’s existing body of work, one hopes future endeavors rise to the artistic level of her earlier creations.
The Sleeping Dictionary
A Book Review
By RACHEL KUNJUMMEN PAULOSE
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 16, 2014) — Sujata Massey’s new work of historical fiction, “The Sleeping Dictionary” is an engaging novel about an Indian woman’s endeavor to continuously reinvent herself in the last days of the British Raj, just as her country is also reestablishing itself as an independent nation.
In 1920s West Bengal, India, Pom is born into a low caste Hindu family which disdains daughters as a curse. Pom’s whole family is swept away in a monsoon, and Pom herself is rescued from a life of slavery by the Lockwood Christian boarding school run by British educators in the city of Midnapore.
Pom changes her name to Sarah, passes herself off as a Christian, and works as a maid at the school. Sarah also serves as an occasional tutor to Bidushi, a high caste girl from her home village. Ghostwriting letters to Bidushi’s aristocratic fiancé Pankaj, Sarah develops a lifelong obsession with the unattainable Brahmin lawyer.
Sarah also begins a more productive lifelong obsession with books. She learns English while working as a servant in a talented literature teacher’s class. Sarah also furtively reads English novels while teaching herself how to read and write in the language.
However, Sarah’s favor veers ill once again when Bidushi dies tragically. Sarah runs away from Lockwood after being falsely accused of stealing a ruby necklace Pankaj gave Bidushi. Sarah disguises herself as a Muslim and assumes the new identity of Pamela.
Bonnie, a call girl, befriends Pamela in her new town of Kharagpur. Initially out of naiveté, Pamela moves into Bonnie’s residence, which is in fact a brothel. The book derives its title from this fateful chapter of Pamela’s life. Western men referred to prostitutes as “sleeping dictionaries” for the additional insight they provided into native language.
Misery, abuse, and an unwanted pregnancy convince the increasingly literate Pamela to become a walking dictionary when she flees her life as a prostitute as well. Pamela abandons her baby daughter at the home of a childless Muslim couple whom she remembered had shown her kindness during her years at Lockwood. The couple do raise Pamela’s child, Hazel, but at ultimately fatal personal cost.
Pamela then tries but fails to pass herself off as an Anglo-Indian. Without any formal schooling, references, or family support, Pamela is unable to secure a steady office job in the city.
Taking on the novel identity of a high caste educated Brahmin now going by the name Kamala, our heroine makes her way to Calcutta during the heyday of the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Ghandi. An English civil servant, Simon, who is more than a little taken with Kamala, hires her as his personal librarian. After learning Pankaj and his high born family are rising stars in the independence movement, Kamala inserts herself into the “Quit India” campaign and finds ways to ingratiate herself to Pankaj and other freedom fighters.
However, the lies Kamala continuously has told to reinvent herself, hide her past, and evade the consequences of her own poor choices as well as the exploitation of others, finally catch up with her in middle age. Just as she is settling into a comfortable lifestyle filled with sacrificial service to others, a true romance, and meaningful work, Kamala must choose whether or not to set free herself and those closest to her by revealing the truth.
Interestingly, this book is a deeply patriotic novel which depicts, in small part, the fascinating rise of the first indigenous, nonviolent, and successful campaign in history to evict an occupying power. The book’s most stirring passages relate to the Indian independence movement and the eminent men and women who courageously resisted British rule at tremendous personal sacrifice. Among the treasures tucked away in this book is an introduction to the poetry of the Nobel Prize winning writer, Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most sophisticated artists who contributed to the Indian freedom movement.
Like India, Kamala finds her voice. Silent no more, she awakens to freedom and demands respect from those she recognizes have no right to define her. Like India, Kamala realizes constructs such as ethnicity, religious heritage, and social status need not be the only means of characterizing a person or a nation. Like India, Kamala’s journey continues, but the future holds promise while guided by empowerment and enlightenment.
While this book is a work of historical fiction, the author occasionally missteps. She portrays an early twentieth century Indian society that is somewhat fluid, when even modern India is in many regions still divided by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and religion. Her characters portray Christianity as a religion of the Western conqueror, when in fact Semitic peoples brought the Judeo-Christian faith to India in the first century, and their descendants still dwell in parts of western and southern India. Massey mangles Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s immortal words declaring India’s liberation. At times she uses modern day Western colloquialisms which do not ring true given the novel’s setting of time and place.
Nevertheless, Massey’s novel is an appealing page turner which spans India’s momentous twentieth century, from the Raj to the nonviolent revolution to the worldwide Indian diaspora. The questions she raises about identity, social mobility, and self-determination, remain among the most fascinating issues impacting multicultural India, indeed human history. The answers lie within us, and as Massey writes, “No dictionary could explain it any better than the heart.”