Violet, the central character of Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, is the daughter of an American woman named Lulu who runs Hidden Jade Path: a Shanghai courtesan house that, uniquely, caters to both Western and Chinese businessmen. When the household is swept up in the chaos around the fall of the Qing dynasty, Lulu and Violet are separated – Violet is kidnapped into a life as a courtesan herself, while Lulu emigrates home to America in the belief her daughter is dead. The novel concerns Violet’s life and various love affairs as a courtesan, including her relationship with Edward, an American man, that goes badly wrong when the Spanish flu comes to call. It also delves into the story of how Lulu ends up in Shanghai, which bears some striking resemblances to Violet’s tale, and into what happens to Violet and Edward’s daughter, who’s taken to America by Edward’s relatives.
The novel uses geography as metaphor, its action jumping between China and America as Violet comes to terms with her biracial heritage and deals with what she sees as her mother’s abandonment. Its title refers to a painting by Violet’s father, Lu Shing, depicting a quintessential Chinese landscape, a valley lit by the rising or the setting sun, offering the promise of fulfilment, peace, beauty.
It’s not a promise that’s ever allowed to come true, even when Violet finds herself among the Chinese valleys and mountains depicted in the painting: instead of a quiet, luxurious country retreat there’s only privation and abuse at the hands of the penniless scholar who’s paid for her hand in marriage. Finding your identity is not so simple. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that Violet doesn’t find peace in the countryside because she does not fully belong there; her American half yearns for the future she was promised in the days when she lived at Hidden Jade Path.
The novel’s interest in familial bonds and national identity reminds me of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. They’re very different novels in tone and time period – Thien’s novel is much more engaged with the vicissitudes of history – but what they do have in common is a reaching-back down the family tree; a sense that connecting to long-lost family members is not an easy salvation, not a way of erasing or replacing the past, but a way, perhaps, of recognising it, of honouring the connection, of, perhaps, starting to build something new. We relate to these characters as part of a family unit; familial bonds underpin the structure of these novels, as the protagonists learn what’s happened to their forebears and their descendants. So family becomes a way to structure the chaos of history and the random, mundane cruelty of fate.
A criticism of the novel that I’ve seen a few times is that the characters are cold, affectless or hard to engage with. I can’t say that was particularly true for me, but to the extent that it was I’d suggest that it’s deliberate. These are characters experiencing awful things: privation, poverty, betrayal, loss of the most traumatic kind. There is nothing for them but to endure; no narrative convenience or closure to save them. I read their disengagement as necessary for survival.
Which isn’t to say that The Valley of Amazement is a bleak novel. There are grace notes of love and friendship and support; they just don’t last, or aren’t quite what the characters hoped they’d be. I enjoyed its bittersweetness; it felt authentic to the hardship of these lives without veering into misery porn. It’s a novel about how best to live with suffering, without losing the hope or the capacity for love.