Cassia Xiao is an impoverished girl whose aunt is determined to get her to Shanghai. Cassia has no objection to this and begs Madame Emerald, the owner of a fancy brothel, to take her on as a servant girl. Madame Emerald buys Cassia and does indeed set her up as a servant girl, but Cassia’s life is not grand until one of Madame Emerald’s lovers, Master Chang, takes a look at Cassia and sees something more. He doesn’t mind her unbound feet and takes her as his lover, insisted that she be set up like the other prostitutes, spending every day and night with her. They fall in love and Cassia is initiated into the secret Hong brotherhood. At one of these meetings, Master Chang is killed and Cassia falls from favor. It is only her determination that brings her back up from the streets to become one of Shanghai’s most revered figures.
Let me start off by saying that this book felt like it was taking me forever to read, although it only took me about a week in reality. The story is not bad at all when you look at it in summary. Cassia’s life would make for great fiction. On the whole, it reminded me of Memoirs of a Geisha; a tale of a slightly scandalous woman that is framed as if realistic but is actually fiction. The early 20th century Chinese setting was very interesting as well, particularly with the mafia-like “brotherhoods” and the difference between the country and the city. These are things I rarely come across in fiction.
The execution, however, for me left a lot to be desired. The prose is completely awkward. The dialogue is about as far from realistic as you can imagine. Worse, it was far more erotic than I’d bargained for and I’m sure some of the scenes should be up there as the worst written sex in fiction. I think the novel would have been far, far better off with just suggestion rather than going into the details.
I’m not sure if any of this is the fault of the translation or the original story and I know that I have been appalled by writing which other people don’t seem to mind in the past. So it might be just me. In all honesty, though, I really can’t recommend this book, except perhaps to look at the lovely cover. The model is the author herself.