This month I have kindly been given the book The Dancing Girl and The Turtle by Karen Kao, published by Linen Press, to review as part of their blog tour.
This book is a strong debut that lingers in your mind after the book is finished. Song Anyi’s life is not her own: the preconditions of being born a woman determine this. The novel opens on her journey to Shanghai, during which a brutal rape causes her to simultaneously realise this and begin to fight for her autonomy. In the patriarchal society of 1930’s China, Anyi’s only way to gain power and financial independence is to utilize her sexuality. Coming from an affluent background, with its emphasis on reputation, Anyi’s new status as a ‘damaged woman’ causes the family to fall apart. Her cousin Cho’s penchant for drugs and gambling is worsened when he becomes obsessed with her, and her brother Kang returns from America to save her, only to become endangered by his association with her. Kao paints a bleak picture of the Shanghai nightlife that they all become involved with, delving into an underworld of violence, prostitutes, opium, dancing girls, and gambling. The ‘dancing girl’ of the title is Anyi, who gains feelings of security with the money she earns from dancing, and the ‘turtle’ is a word used in the nightclubs for the men who attempt to obtain for free what they should pay for: access to Anyi.
I really enjoyed the uniqueness of to the added perspectives of family servants, Nian, Blossom and Jin, which created a cast of characters and exhibited how their lives are intertwined. They are an integral part of the story, bearing witness to the inner workings of the family, and helping and hindering their health. Blossom, enamored with Cho, puts Anyi in the path of prostitution as a means to keep them apart. Nian is a sympathetic character that observes society’s decline with ‘pity in her heart for the misery of their lives’. In contrast, Cho is not very likeable and his only redeeming feature is his love for his cousin, but even then he is possessive and obsessive and spends his time drinking and gambling. He and Anyi are the only characters given first person perspective in the novel to show their immediate connection. Cho sees how guarded she is, describing how she seems ‘wrapped in a thin, gauzy film… I can feel her body through the fabric. But it’s there and the film gets harder every day until it’s not a cloth but a shell. I can’t break it any more and I don’t know why’. Anyi’s perspective is especially important as it illustrates the pain and alienation she feels throughout the novel and her departure from emotions. It exhibits her feelings of guilt around her parents’ deaths and how their memories haunt her as well as the urge to inflict pain on herself for punishment or to help her forget the horrible event that began her adult life. However, despite the trauma she has experienced, she is mentally strong and you get the impression that this strength is the only thing keeping her alive.
I found learning about this era in China really interesting, especially as I am unfamiliar with it. Kao writes of the restrictions of a patriarchal society on the brink of war. It is a culture that still values old traditions, but is looking forward to the future. The old came with mention of things like foot binding and the emphasis on maintaining appearances. The character of Tanizaki- a Japanese friend of Cho’s and frequenter of the nightlife world that Anyi operates in- is a segue into more information on the difficult relationship between the countries. His attraction to Anyi puts her and her family into the path of danger as they learn more about him.
Kao is a skilled writer, with a talent for creating strong visuals, sometimes visceral and unpleasant but very powerful. One of my favourite parts of this book was her description of colour as it really brought the images to life in my head. Her characterization was very clever and as Anyi progressed through the story she became more and more likeable. She draws the threads and different characters of the story together, revealing secrets that leave the reader reeling at the close of the novel.
About the Author:
Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the US in the 1950s. Her debut novel has been praised by critics from London to Hong Kong for its accurate portrayal of the oppression experienced by women in 1930s Shanghai.
Find her on Twitter: @karenkao5
Her website: http://inkstonepress.com/