Penguin UK, trade pb, 469 p.
Based on a true story, The Painter of Shanghai tells the captivating tale of one woman’s journey from a life of prostitution to the art studios of Shanghai.I’d never heard of Pan Yuliang, the often controversial, Chinese painter schooled in Western-style art before, but I usually enjoy historical fiction and fictional biographies so I was intrigued. Plus the comparison to Memoirs of a Geisha also had me curious. I think the author has done a wonderful job here researching and then bringing Pan to life in the pages of the book. Not a lot is known about the life of Pan Yuliang, but Epstein has created a fascinating account of what it might have been like.
At the age of fourteen Pan Yuliang, an orphan girl in the care of her opium-addicted uncle, finds herself in the third-class cabin of a steamship bound for a strange new town. When Pan and her uncle arrive in the city he sells his niece to ‘The Hall of Eternal Splendour’, where she is destined to live out her life as a prostitute in its smoky back rooms.
And yet, two years later, escape appears in the unlikely form of a government inspector who will take Pan as his concubine and introduce her to a glamorous new life in 1920s Shanghai: a life of love and of art.
But as Pan begins to realize her talent as a painter she also sees that she may lose something even more precious: a life of safety.
He laughs. ‘Position? You’re a student. Of an art no one in China understands.’I have to admit that I think my enjoyment of the book was slightly marred by the fact that I read it so slowly. Busy days and not having enough time to read more than a few pages a day, made it seem to drag a little, for me. On the other hand, I sometimes wished the story didn’t jump a few years between sections. I know that it would be impossibly long otherwise, but sometimes I wanted to know more how she got from one place to another. Yes, I realise it’s a contradiction to think of the book as both too long and not long enough.
‘I’m a painter,’ she counters stubbornly. ‘A painter of Shanghai. And this’ – she touches her canvas – ‘this is my painting.’
For a long moment he just stares at her. Then he drops his head. When he speaks again, his voice is flat, and very careful. ‘Very well. Here’s a choice for the painter of Shanghai. You can keep your picture. Your position.’ He takes a breath. ‘Or, you keep your position as my wife.’
One of my favourite aspects of the book was actually the setting. I haven’t read a lot of books set in China, but of the ones I have read, I don’t think any of them have been set in Shanghai in the 1920s. They have either taken place long ago, or during the Cultural Revolution, so it was very interesting to read about the China of that time, with the hints of some of the upheaval that was to come. And I’m always interested in cultural differences and the role of women in different cultures. So overall, it was a good read, and an impressive first novel. The author is apparently now working on a book set in Tokyo during World War II. As you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to reading it.
Thank you to Sophie Baker of Curtis Brown for sending me this to review.
My Rating: 3.5/5
(#54 for 2008, What's in a Name Challenge)
Interview with the author at WOW! (Women on Writing)
Interview with the author (Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt)
Review in The New York Times
Also reviewed at:
Diary of an Eccentric
Also at Diary of an Eccentric, an interview with the author.
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