The Book of Loss

by Julith Jedamus
244 pages,
ISBN: 0297848607

Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min
346 pages,
ISBN: 0618562036

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Formidable Women at Court
by Nancy Wigston

Born in China, Anchee Min experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. She has written about her country in several books, notably the bestseller Becoming Madame Mao. This edition of her new novel, Empress Orchid, comes with book club questions and a short interview, in which she clarifies her goals in writing about China's last Empress. "In China," she says, "children learn that the collapse of every dynasty was the fault of the concubine . . . [they] are taught that the Empress was responsible for destroying China's two-thousand-year imperial culture." The same was true of Madame Mao, who was executed, whereas her husband "was seen as the George Washington of China." It's a gift when an author lays bare her intentions: "I could not let lies be the only record," says Min of this revisionist history of a near-destitute girl whose intelligence, beauty, and resolve made her one of the world's most powerful rulers.
Orchid's journey to power begins, she tells us, with "a rotten smell"; the family is trying to transport her father's rapidly decaying corpse to Peking for burial, running out of cash to pay the bearers as they do so. The fifteen-year-old Manchu girl's adored father was a provincial governor. His health deteriorated after being dismissed by the Emperor, who blamed him for the peasant revolts in his region. Arriving in Peking with her mother and siblings to share the shabby house of an unwelcoming Eleventh Uncle, Orchid is to be married off to her handicapped cousin. Instead, she enters the Manchu Dynasty's concubine sweepstakes, as it were, where her looks and carefully flirtatious smile land her in the heart of the Forbidden City.
Much of her early story concerns the making of a princess; as such it carries timeless echoes of everyone from Cinderella to the late Princess Diana. A girl is plucked from obscurity and finds herself in the spotlight, amid lavish digs and a complex system of court politics. The Grand Empress doesn't like her, but the feckless Son of Heaven doesłat first. Three thousand concubines are her competition and powerful eunuchs are plotting and scheming to oust her. She has a faithful servant, but few allies; even her son is not safe from her rivals. Min has done her homework. We learn much about the Manchu's elaborate court, which resembles a long-running Chinese opera, awash in silk, jade, gold, precious stones, paintings, art, and fancifully named palaces. On the downside, castration leaves the eunuchs, the court's "in-house police force", leaking urine.
There are riveting bits of gore (an armless and legless princess kept alive in a jar as a warning against ambition), and evidence of constant, lethal plotting, but it's the sheer detail of de luxe descriptions that weigh down the narrative, which is occasionally saved by Min's lightness of phrasing. Big Sister Fann, who helps Orchid with court knowledge and dress, was "known to have a scorpion mouth but a tofu heart." Usually such felicitous depictions read like translations from the original. But not always. Riding in a damp palanquin several years later, Orchid, sounding like Paris Hilton, complains to her "big sister", the ineffably elegant Empress Nuharoo, that she is "sick of having a wet butt." Such jolts are rare, however, and the narrative seems firmly rooted in imperial China, where the "rotten smell" is less from a parent's decaying corpse than from the inability of a culture several thousand years old to modernise itself as the barbariansł British, French, Russiansłarrive at the Imperial Gates.
Things grow more exciting as Orchid matures. She learns about the affairs of state and acknowledges the weakness of her handsome but effete husband; she comes to admire his younger brother, Prince Kung, a much more realistic man, and she daringly defeats the courtiers who plan to seize power after her husband's death. Among the more frustrating things Orchid comes to understand is that her own son is too spoiled, too much like his father; the novel ends just as she and Prince Kung have formed an alliance, and it comes as no surprise that the forty-six years of her reign will form the subject of Min's next book.

Tenth century imperial Japan is the setting of The Book of Loss, by American writer Julith Jedamus. This is less a novel of period and politics than onełas its title suggestsł about the high cost of emotion. In the capital of Heian-Ky, now known as Kyoto, a diary has been stolen; copies have been made in order to address the truth behind a vicious scandal. The diary unfolds a tale of jealousy and escalating rivalry between two women of the court for the love of one man; it is a rivalry that eventually threatens to undermine the rule of the Emperor. Jedamus's take on late tenth century Japanese aristocrats is also based on intensive research; her book concludes with a twenty-five-page glossary.
The diary details a fiercely fought battle of courtly love, Japanese-style, showing a single woman struggling to find a haven ("haven", ironically, was the term for a wife who had borne a child) in a treacherous world. Armed with words, women of the court thrust and repel. (Jedamus's book incidentally reveals the immense amount of energy and time that aristocrats of both sexes had to invest in personal affairs.)
A young noblewoman whose reputation was damaged by the diarist's rumour mill introduces the stolen document, angrily explaining that she wishes the world to know the true nature of the author's "cruelty". It's difficult at first to bear the stilted language that is supposed to evoke late tenth-century Japan. For example: "The garden through which you will walk, verdant as it is with moss and camellias, may wither in a moment. Do not stray from the stony path." The garden is a metaphor for the diarist's charm, which is illusory, according to the embittered speaker. Finally the diary becomes a house. "Slide back the door, and behold the architecture of a devious mind."
Naturally we behold no such thing. These pages do reveal the narrator's profound despair at her lover's betrayal (with her former friend and fellow court poet); he has also seduced the Emperor's daughter and therefore suffered temporary banishment. (Jedamus's glossary informs us that banishment was favoured over the beheadings so popular in Europe and China.) The rival women had come to court as provincial girls who excelled in the classics; both were brilliant writers from an early age. Their poetry and stories earned them their keep as entertainers to the Empress. Once they become involved with the same man, their mutual story evolves into a lurid tale replete with spying, gossiping, thieving, plottingłthese replace their elegantly written poems and ritual observations of the moon.
In contrast to the stilted introduction, the diarist's voice is direct and urgent: "He is gone. Dainogan told me; I did not see him." One of the unexpected pleasures of reading these pages is the way that the act of writing itself assumes a personality. Varieties of paper, styles of script, brushes, ink stones, and inkłthe latter often spilled when our diarist is agitatedłembody the subtleties of a whole culture. "I heard he sent her a letter on thin green paper, knotted around a spring of five-needled pine, to show his constancy." Rather unoriginal, she adds bitterly, but well suited to the unoriginality of her rival's style. Her own letters, from the same educated, unfaithful man, display a rainbow of meanings: "Paper the colour of grass, pollen, dust, lilac, cloud. Paper vivid as love: amber, sumac, mauve. Paper white as anger: the sheets thick and unbending, the words obdurate and harsh."
Although an ageing twenty-nine-year-old and no real beautyłas she is the first to admitłthe narrator flees the increasingly fraught court and travels to a temple retreat, where she happens on a dishy younger lover. His letters start to arrive: yellow, blue, tied with branches of laurel. When she receives news of her son, who is being raised elsewhere (pregnant women were deemed polluting to the court), the letter from his caregiver is "stained from the journey, and the pages smelled of must." Another letter from the same source has been carried through dangerous territory by a monk, and arrives smelling of sweat and incense.
The picture of Japan that emerges shows a cultivated aristocratic nucleus variously threatened from outside: by bandits, rebels, and epidemics. Still, a culture with a more highly developed awareness of the personal and the erotic would be hard to imagine. Combined with these is a search for meaning; our narrator's new lover has spent time in China, where he has studied the I Ching, a book of considerable power. After long resisting her pleas to use the book to foretell her future, he finally acquiesces; the divination scene is eerie in the extreme. The mystery remains unresolved, and we are left to wonder whether the diary is proof of a "devious" mindłas promised by the accuserł or an unravelling one. Out of the shreds of a stolen manuscript, Jedamus has woven an engrossing tale about sex, love, and sacrifice in a society that shares disturbing parallels with our own.

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