Book review: Amy Tan keeps it all in the family

Amy Tan paints a rich picture of life in Shanghai in the early part of the 20th century in The Valley of Amazement.

The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan, Fourth Estate, Dh65
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It took Amy Tan eight years to write this book, which began with a faded photograph of her grandmother.

“My grandmother was not old-fashioned,” Tan writes in her explanation of how The Valley of Amazement came about. “She wore daring fashions. She was not traditional.” Could she have been one of those exquisite doyens of a Chinese courtesan house?

Tan takes that possibility and turns it into a magnificently detailed saga, evoking Shanghai in the early 20th century, painting a rich picture of the crumbling Qing dynasty and weaving the story of a Chinese-American mother and daughter struggling to reconcile the disparate worlds of East and West.

But perhaps the book’s most stirring chapters are those that describe the courtesans’ wretched place in society, best summed up by the author herself: “I then did the unthinkable,” Tan says. “I contemplated that she might have been a courtesan ... However, according to family history, all the women in our family had been virtuous ... I had besmirched her.”