**spoiler alert** I received this book from the Librarything Early Reviewer program. It is historical fiction with a psychological bent. I liked the w**spoiler alert** I received this book from the Librarything Early Reviewer program. It is historical fiction with a psychological bent. I liked the writing and I enjoyed the story. The main character was interesting if not always likable. Her main focus was her enjoyment, safety and needs. Too often historical fiction is little better than a romance in old clothes. This is not your typical 'long-suffering women overcomes trials with womanly virtues, and finds happiness in the end' story. People who want that type of sentimentality or who object to sex, especially a women who initiates and enjoys sex with no interest in marriage will not find this a satisfactory read.
The book is fiction, but based on the true life story of the real person, Eastern Jewel (EJ). She was a Manchu Princess who was shipped off to Japan by her father when she was 8 years old. She came from a Chinese society that didn't value females, and used them without consultation. She was sent to an important family in Japan, who treated women similarly. She was told she was being sent away for bad behavior, but it is likely the Japanese man, Kawashima (her father's blood brother) asked for her. Since she was only the daughter of the 3rd concubine and one of 13 girls she was considered expendable.
EJ was enraged to be disposed of and decided that she was no longer Chinese. She became enamored of all things Japanese, though she was really treated no better there. Sex was the whole official purpose of EJ's life. Her Chinese or Japanese master expected to use her as either a bride, or a whore - in short a bargaining chip in the power plays they lived by in daily personal and political life.
EJ saw nothing wrong with sex, and enjoyed it, but wanted to be in charge of her life and enjoyment. Because of her attitude and actions she was forever removed from the possibility of the Bride option. She was deflowered by Kawashima's father at 15, after she had been adopted by the family, but never really accepted. EJ was also pimped out by Kawashiima to his cronies and those he wished to charm or sway. Later he even slept with her. At one point she becomes pregnant and is forced to abort the child or be outcast. Japan did not have the easy Chinese atmosphere of concubines and excess children. Her doctor is a quack and she survives but is unable to bear children.
EJ did not see the real downside of her life until she fell in love with a young soldier Kawashima sent to her. She thought the feeling was mutual and that they would marry. He told her she was too shameless to ever be a Japanese wife and was known for her actions by all in society. EJ's heart broke but she never thought seriously of marriage again.
She was trying to be in charge of her own life, but she also was always seeking love, acceptance, and belonging in a family. She lost her mother at 8, was not accepted by the women in the Japanese family, and eventually lost her devoted servant to age. She does form some strong female friendships but they are always transitory because they are not family; She often sacrifices or betrays them to her current needs. She doesn't lie to herself about what she does, but she is unable to make the choice to act differently.
Around 18 she was married off, against her will to a dull Mongolian prince who was far away and barely civilized. EJ was sent to the empty Mongolian plains with the endless sky and the wind and freezing cold. She betrays those who befriended her, has an affair, and then runs off.
EJ then moved back to Japan but had to hide from her family. She sold herself to rich men so they could fund her lifestyle. She eventually moves to Shanghai, and there is asked by the Japanese army to spy for them, which she agrees to do. It is during the run up to WWII when there is much intrigue and unrest. The place is full of Chinese, Japanese, White Russians, and Westerners. The Chinese are fighting each other: Nationalists and the Communists, and the Japanese are trying to expand their control in China.
Her life is an empty round of parties, events and high society, and foreign men. She often is depressed and uses opium to hide from her sadness. She has become confused, and thinks that to achieve happiness she must act like a man, since women's roles are so constrained.
As an agent she is sent to Peking and there she stays until Japan loses the war. Once the Japanese are defeated she is doubly wanted as a Japanese agent, and a Chinese traitor. She may or may not have come to a bad end once she is captured by the authorities.
Throughout the book the story focuses on EJ and her internal world. Her attempts to find a place to belong, on her terms are the prism that we see her life through. At the end she has a choice to accept her fate or use someone else to suffer her fate. The book ends before we know which course of action she picks. The reader is left to decide if EJ has grown or if she is still pursuing her 'me first' policy.
I enjoyed the writing and the settings. The characters were well done and EJ was always interesting. The story was good if a little incomplete. Some wonder why the author didn't include some of the actions scenes in EJ's life when she was actually in the field for the Japanese (called Japanese Joan of Arc) ? I would have enjoyed that as well. Still it was an enjoyable read and I would read the author again....more
I read this for a RL book group. I like historical fiction, though prefer mine set in the BC time period. It was a large book, and I was dreading haviI read this for a RL book group. I like historical fiction, though prefer mine set in the BC time period. It was a large book, and I was dreading having to read it, expecting it to take a long time. I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was blown away. It was a quick, riveting, fun read.
The book is set in Edwardian England, and in the present day. The POV, Grace, is a former servant, a maid, in a big country estate. She lived in the village near the house and goes to work there at 14. Her mother was a maid there before her. There is a secret about her mother's time at the house, and why she left, but no one will speak about it.
In the present day, Grace is in her 90s and living in a nursing home. She is contacted by a woman who is doing a film about a death that happened on the estate in 1924. A poet killed himself at a garden party. The family became notorious is a minor way. The contact stirs Grace's memories of the events and the secrets she alone knows, because everyone else is dead.
The part of the story set in the past, is Grace recalling the events of her life. It is interspersed with present day issues. She is very old and declining as the book progresses. She is dealing with her relationship with her nurse, and her grown daughter, which are at times prickly. She meets and talks with a production assistant and an actress.
Her main reason for dredging up her memories is not just for the film, but for a series of audio tapes she decides to make for her grandson. He is grown and a successful author, but has vanished. He is dealing with the death of his wife, feeling guilty about it, and has abandoned his life. Grace, with her own association with the death at the estate, wants to explain how you can be involved in events, be unable to stop them, but can't let them destroy you.
I think the issue with the grandson is what saved the book for me. It is minor, but it turns the book into a living story, rather than a static recitation of the past. I always find that looking backward exclusively is a boring way to tell a story. You already know that everything works out or the narrator wouldn't be there to tell the story.
Grace's memories bring the family at the estate and her fellow servants to life. The bulk of the past story is focused on them. Grace eventually became a ladies maid to the elder daughter, Hannah, and quite emotionally attached to them all, but especially to Hannah and the younger daughter Emmeline.
Grace also tells of her life, her lost love, her mistaken marriage to another, the birth of her daughter, WW I and WW II, her receiving a Doctorate in Archeology, working on digs, and her discovery of her mother's secret. Most of Grace's personal story is told in a few lines of conversation without a lot of detail. It was sometimes frustratingly limited. The story of her lost love and her discovery of her mother's secret is woven into the story of the family and has depth.
I found everything but the Doctorate and the work on digs to be believable and a good addition to the story. She was no longer in school at 14, yet she went on for a terminal degree ? She earned her degree after the war as a Continuing Education student and divorced working mother, I doubt she would have the time or money. Then she somehow was actually working on digs around the world, with no strong connection to academia, it all seems absurd.
The story is one of family, of loyalty, perseverance and of forgiveness. It had a great emotional impact, the characters were that well drawn, and the stories that interesting. I was worried that the author might try to emulate the writing of the time and that the book would be slow and staid. It was smoothly written and flew by, I read it in almost one sitting, and just loved it. I found the various members of the family to be confusing at times in the beginning, but just let it roll off me.
I only saw 2 questionable items in terms of historical accuracy that struck me. Morton has the aristocratic household using fish knives and forks, and while they came in during this time period, they were considered middle class and not used. Then a ladies maid would have been called by her surname: Reeves, not Grace as they do in the book....more