It's been the year of the comeback for the ultra-long novel. I've heard a theory that this trend for epic fiction is a literary rebellion against the internet, in particular the staccato nature of social media sites such as Twitter. That's all well and good but it does present problems.
For a start, unless it's dazzling, a novel that goes on for 500-plus pages can be tedious for even the most dedicated book lover to pursue. And for the writer, staying in control of the material, sustaining an even pace, balancing detail, character, narrative, etc becomes a bigger challenge the longer a book gets.
Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley Of Amazement (HarperCollins), is a doorstopper at nearly 600 pages. Like much of her previous work, including bestseller The Joy Luck Club, it is an American-Chinese mother-daughter story. But this time Tan takes us inside the exotic world of the courtesan houses of Shanghai early last century.
Violet Minturn is the indulged daughter of Lulu Mimi, a white woman running a first-class courtesan house frequented by Chinese and Westerners. At the age of 7, Violet spends her days spying on the courtesans and generally being a brat. However, Violet's sense of identity and her comfortable existence are about to be destroyed.
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As China's Imperial Dynasty collapses, everything changes. A conman conspires to separate her from her mother, then sells her as a virgin courtesan. Violet learns the art of charming men, is deflowered by the highest bidder, falls in and out of love and has her heart broken but never her spirit.
Tan revisits many themes that will be familiar to fans of her work; stolen children, the tensions between traditional and modern, the strains between mothers and daughters; but she packages them up in a story that's different enough to keep things interesting.
She says she was inspired to write it after beginning to suspect her grandmother may have survived as a courtesan for a time. It is lavishly detailed, fascinating and often darkly humorous. But it is unnecessarily long. Some parts could have been trimmed without losing any impact. And a section told from Violet's mother's point of view could have been cut completely, particularly as there is no real separation between the two main voices.
Much as I love Tan's wonderful storytelling and as vivid as her evocation of the life of a courtesan is, The Valley Of Amazement is overblown in parts. There are other points in the story where Violet seems oddly detached about her most serious setbacks and losses. And then finally, after sprawling over pages and pages, there is an awkward, hasty tying up of loose ends.
There is a lot to enjoy in this book but ultimately The Valley Of Amazement is too much of a good thing.