In Amy Tan’s “The Valley of Amazement,” characters are beaten, kidnapped, sold, raped and abused. They are pushed into marriages and prostitution, are betrayed by lovers, are abandoned by family. And yet, not one of them feels like a victim.
In this novel, things break. People are forced into situations they cannot, and will never, change. They love, they lose, they hate. And yet, through it all, they are always themselves. Given the subject matter of Chinese courtesans in a fiercely patriarchal society, just surviving and maintaining agency is a feat in and of itself, one I can’t imagine attempting.
Now, there’s plenty of other interesting things in this novel. Tan’s research was clearly extensive, and she paints the picture of these courtesans and their world of prewar Shanghai incredibly well. But at the core of the novel are her characters, their relationships with one another, and their maintenance of their selves in the face of overwhelming odds.