Book Review: The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

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The female body as map of and locus for violence receives starkly poignant treatment in this first novel by Amsterdam expat Karen Kao. [Contributed by Erin Russell]

Karen KaoIn a beautifully written yet at-times disturbing read, Kao takes readers on a psychologically compelling journey through one young woman’s rapid descent into self-destruction following her rape by soldiers.

1930s China. The long shadow of recent war, rumours of another. In the town of Soochow, Anyi’s parents have died and she receives instruction to remain there until her brother can return from America to accompany her to her aunt and uncle’s in Shanghai. She decides she can make the journey on her own.

“The road had looked honest and straight. A journey of two weeks, I thought. But here in the mountains the mist rises from the river and the road turns milk-white and the way forward is lost.“

In the places where such things happen, the liminal space of the road between cities, between familial homes, she is brutally raped and left for dead. Once delivered to her aunt’s home in Shanghai she finds it is no refuge but rather a holding station reinforcing the shame she has brought upon the family. It is decided that Anyi must be married off. While negotiations are being made, however Anyi, refusing to be either victim or burden, turns the violence enacted upon her inward. It begins with cutting but when she is brought into the company of an untrustworthy caregiver, one Aunty Wen (herself a victim of rape and blinding at the hands of her violators years earlier), she is quickly ushered into a world of prostitution specializing in clients who enact bodily harm along with sex.

All this is set against the backdrop of the bustling hub of 1930s Shanghai where mounting tensions in the face of encroachments from both east and west prelude WWII. The setting is meticulously realized. American expats, Japanese spies, opium den patrons, serving amahs, and dancing girls from the countryside with feet freshly unbound -- all sense the shifting political tides and jostle for perceived scraps of power.

These private lives and private motivations move in a masterfully choreographed dance centering around Anyi’s broken body, a uniquely public commodity. Everyone wants something from the “broken girl”. Indeed, her value strangely goes up by virtue of being damaged:
“…as if I were a bolt of cloth to be cut into as many pieces as would yield the greatest profit.”

The writing is exceptional. In tightly controlled prose, readers are treated to a superbly unsentimental imagistic narration that is blunt and unyielding, reminiscent of modernist poetry (think Ezra Pound).
“The moon shines on the bowl of fruit that Nian brings to my room every day, together with a plate and the small knife that gleams in the silver light. Yes, why not? I make cuts, no bigger than a fingernail, down the length of one pale thigh. The pain is exquisite.”

The Dancing Girl and the TurtleThe juxtaposition of a host of narrative voices, switching between both first and second person, can be mildly disorienting in this novel. On the level of craft, however, it comes close to Cubism’s project of synthesizing a variety of perspectives into a single resounding whole, more than the sum of its parts. In this regard, the narrative technique is brilliantly employed, creating a chorus of tones that echoes the rush, ambition, diversity, and indeed much darker elements of 1930s Shanghai. This could make for a confusingly crowded storyline, but Kao unfurls the narrative thread with near perfect control.
The climactic action, perhaps, was a bit difficult to follow given all the characters at play; I had to give it a second read. On the whole, however, the story is taut and tidy and moves along at a refreshingly fast clip.

There are difficult passages, grim descriptions of violence. The starkness of Kao’s narration serves moreover to heighten, not glide over, these horrors. That said, her writing never devolves into the overly graphic or exploitative. There is no indulgent or extraneous word inserted anywhere. Nor is there a romanticizing of the self-harm in which Anyi engages.

What kept me turning the pages was the humanity, the fully realized psychologies of the narrating voices. Their lives were engrossing; I understood their motivations and how they had gotten to where (and who) they were. In the face of the deeply inhumane actions of some of the antagonists, I found myself grounded by the deep kindness shown by two minor foil characters in particular: a calmly compassionate African American servant and a disabled orphan-girl-turned-successful-cook.

Finally, and importantly, this novel offers an urgent depiction of the multiple levels whereby a society systematically blames victims of rape. Survivors, in desperation, turn this blame inward with devastating consequences. Parallels can be drawn between a fast-paced progressively urban 1930s Shanghai and our own era – and perhaps can cause us to ask at what level we may ourselves create similar conditions of shame, neglect, and silence.


The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (2017) is published by Linen Press. ISBN 978-0-9935997-0-5. It is available from Amazon here.

 

Contributed by Erin Russell

Erin Russell is an Amsterdam-based Canadian writer. Her short story, 'The Wood Pile', was recently longlisted for the Able Muse Award.

 

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