“I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant “connecting link.”
—Sui Sin Far, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1890)
In the late 19th-century, interracial marriages were largely taboo, and Eurasian children were “bastards” without a place to belong. Using scenes from her own life, the Chinese Canadian writer Sui Sin Far carved a liminal “connecting link” space in her essay, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1890). Fast forward just 20 years later to the chronological setting of Amy Tan’s latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. Readers who identify with the fiercely independent speaker of Far’s essay will be drawn to the similarly-minded protagonist of Tan’s novel, Violet. Consciously or not, Tan’s novel seems to pick up the spirit of Far’s essay and carry it forward, testing “Occidentals” and “Orientals” once again to see if they have gained any tolerance for Eurasian children, the “connecting links.” Despite history, laws, and cultural edicts, both Far and Violet must search for a strong sense of self, and must find the inner strength and resources to rescue themselves repeatedly.
Those who have been waiting for Tan’s novel, her first in eight years, will not be disappointed. Tan revisits familiar emotional territory from previous novels, exploring the complexity of mother-daughter bonds, but with an epic setting spanning the first few decades of the 20th century and several different cities. Violet’s lifelong search for her “happier self” takes her from the chambers of Shanghai courtesan houses to remote Chinese villages, and from San Francisco to the Hudson Valley of New York. Valley was inspired by a newspaper photo of Tan’s great-aunt, captioned “one of the 10 great Shanghai beauties,” or courtesans from the early 20th century. Despite Tan’s professed reluctance to write bedroom scenes earlier in her career, the novel’s subject matter necessitates many bedroom scenes, which range skillfully from the clinical to the sensual and erotic.
Although the jacket copy describes Valley as the story of a mother and daughter, the emotional core of the novel belongs primarily to Violet, the half-Chinese, half-white daughter of an American madam who runs a courtesan house in Shanghai. After a series of betrayals, Violet becomes a “virgin courtesan” herself, forced to navigate the worlds of courtesan politics, business deals, and the permeable boundary between the two. Other characters share the spotlight for a chapter or two, including a memorable tutorial on courtesanship from Violet’s mentor Magic Gourd. As with previous novels, including her best-known The Joy Luck Club, Tan is at her best detailing the trauma of parental abandonment and the complex joy of reunion.
Tan also uses the titular landscape painting deftly as a symbol of Violet’s lifelong search for the right perspective and sense of identity. The painting appears in several chapters, each time marked with a new patina of meaning.
“Was the painting meant to depict a feeling of hope or was it hopelessness? Were you supposed to be standing on the cliff [in the painting] charged with bravery or trembling in dread of what awaited you? … You could not see the painting both ways at the same time. You had to choose which one it was originally meant to be. How would you know which was right unless you were the one who had painted it?”
The novel is expansive, using multiple narrators, locations, and time periods, sometimes within chapters. A reader might wish for a few more section breaks, a little more white space—smoother, more consistent cues—in order to keep up with all of these factors. However, this is a small dissonant note within the overall satisfying emotional chords that Tan’s novel strikes.