The Concubine's Daughter
by Pai Kit Fai
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Concubine's Daughter / 978-0-312-35521-0
I was excited about "The Concubine's Daughter" because the teaser write-up compared it to one of my favorite novels in recent memory, "Memoirs of a Geisha". Unfortunately, "The Concubine's Daughter" is not, in my opinion, anything like "Memoirs of a Geisha", and the best comparison I can offer is that it feels like a bare-bones, watered-down attempt at an Amy Tan novel.
"Memoirs of a Geisha", for all its faults, was populated by human beings, not caricatures. It was a realistic world, not a world of fantasy - where fathers sold their daughters, yes, but sold them because they would otherwise starve to death. Women were hateful and competitive towards each other, true, but with a good purpose and reason - they had been placed into a society where competition determined who lived and who died. In short, characters were complex and motives were ambiguous.
In "The Concubine's Daughter", however, there is no ambiguity and no shades of gray - characters are completely good or completely evil with no middle ground and, indeed, often without any reason. Within the first chapter, the scene is set - an aging, wealthy farmer has bought himself a fourth wife from a once-rich family. The qualities he desires in a wife are simple - he is a sadist and is attracted to the girl because her family and personal bearing are proud and haughty and he cannot wait to dominate and humiliate her in the bedroom. On their wedding night, he orders his other three wives to hold the girl down while he beats and rapes her, and he takes great pleasure in his attempts to "fill the b_____ with sons".
When the hoped-for son turns out to be a daughter, he attempts to strangle the child and bury her in his field, as he has done with all his other daughters (except for the first one, who was brutally gang-raped and murdered at age 10, for no apparent reason except that the author must have had some kind of per-chapter 'rape quota'), and as "everyone else" in the village regularly does, and this deserves a closer look. I'm not Chinese and I've never even been to China, but I question the assertion that strangling all baby girls was just something that everyone in the village did, all the time. Even assuming that no one noticed that such a practice would mean no brides for the village sons when they came of age, even assuming that there wasn't a single sentimental father among the lot of them, it seems strange that a completely agrarian village of farmers would value females so little, when the bulk of the field work and all of the house work was being performed by the women of the house - after all, *someone* has to tend the fields while the master's sons are learning to read, and if not daughters, then who? There aren't any slaves to be seen, and servants have to be fed, clothed, and paid at least as much as children, so this "kill all girls" thing seems incredibly unlikely on a number of levels. I can certainly believe that some - perhaps most - of the baby girls would be murdered in a given society with certain dynamics, but to insist that *all* the men kill *all* the girls seems ridiculous and feels like further attempt on the part of the author to make all the men out to be evil demons rather than people, particularly when the "nice" men enter the novel and turn out to all rather suspiciously be at least partly European in birth.
The reason I compare "The Concubine's Daughter" to an amateurish attempt at an Amy Tan knockoff is that all the prerequisites are there: a multi-generational tale of mothers and daughters, covered with a strong layer of oppression from society in general and sadistic men in particular. The women are rarely better than the men - they mostly hate each other with very little reason, and beat children for fun. The first story feels lifted from "The Joy Luck Club" - the daughter's life and position are secured by a well-timed suicide by her mother, coupled with a strong dash of superstition from the patriarch of the family and a desire to avoid a life-long curse. All the raw emotion and interesting characters have been stripped out, though, and events rarely seem to make much sense, such as having a young girl persistently trapped in sexual slavery in a brothel and yet always managing to remain a virgin, which is a common "have my cake and eat it too" mistake with authors. Also here is the cardinal sin of the precocious fairy child that is more civilized, wise, and grown-up than her age and circumstances would allow - five year old girls who spend their entire life locked in a small shed do not tidy house and sweep the corners, let alone know how to speak or interact with people - how could they?
I really can't recommend this novel as providing any kind of deep insight into the culture it is claiming to portray.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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