The Empress Lover by Linda Jaivin Fourth Estate $29.99
Linda Jaivin is best-known for her erotic fiction, which fuses the political and personal with refreshing dollops of wit. Her 1995 best-seller, Eat Me broke new ground in exploring the lascivious possibilities of fruit. But Jaivin is also a renowned sinologist, a fluent Mandarin speaker with an encyclopaedic knowledge of China. She has lived and lectured there, and apart from writing fiction, one of her sidelines in as a translator and movie sub-titler.
Her seventh novel, The Empress Lover, blends her love of this complex country with myth, memoir, memory and more than a hint of magic. She also bears a passing resemblance to her heroine, Linnie, a middle-aged Australian movie sub-titler, who lives in one of Beijing’s older quarters. They share the same Chinese name Jia Peilin, are consumed by the desire to write fiction, and are bound emotionally to spirit of place.
But here the similarities end and what begins is an examination of “fusa”, a wonderful Chinese word that means obscure, complicated, uncertain. If modern China is fusa incarnate, laden with historical baggage and contradictions, then Linnie’s own background is as fusa as they come. Brought up by relatives after her 17-year-old mother dies in childbirth, Linnie has no knowledge of her father. All she has been left are a richly carved pair of expensive jade bracelets, and the dying words of her mother who said her father was “a Prince” – certainly the stuff of fiction.
Linnie herself lives in a highly imaginative world. For years she’s been struggling to write her novel about her experiences in China, and has returned to Beijing after a long spell in Australia to complete it. She has also written another book, an account of the real-life trickster and scholar Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse wrote a sensational and fictional account of the 19th century court of the Empress Cixi. In his erotic fantasies, he imagined an affair with the then elderly Empress. Linnie’s novel, The Empress Lover, replicated his “saga stuffed full of gratuitous, sensationalist sex scenes, murder, history lessons and purple prose”.
One day, Linnie receives a letter from a man on horseback dressed in 19th century costume, purporting to give her news about her mysterious father. The writer of the missive is no less than Backhouse’s own biographer, a man so ancient everyone presumed he was dead. Curiouser and curiouser. Or more and more fusa.
By now, the reader realises that the novel is like one of those carved ivory Chinese balls within balls, or a series of Chinese boxes. Fact and fiction blur. What starts out as a straightforward narrative dips into magic realism and back again. As we get to know Linnie, we discover the circumstances that have shaped her, in particular a life-long love affair with the handsome, enigmatic and elusive Q. We also learn a great deal about China’s rich and complicated history and lifestyle, from the earliest days of the imperial dynasties to the massacre at Tiennamen Square and today’s schizophrenic society, which balances extreme wealth and commercialism on the one hand with communist values on the other.
As Linnie prepares for an evening rendez-vous to find out about her father, Jaivin dips in and out of anecdote and memoir, history and fantasy. The story is told in a number of voices, from Linnie’s own (essentially part 1), to a poet who knew both Linnie and Q in their youth, in part 2. In the middle are other storytellers, including Backhouse himself. It’s to Jaivin’s credit that for the most part, she juggles these multiple story-lines expertly. Every so often the sheer weight of fantasy and absurd coincidence seems to overpower the novel, threatening to split those interlocking ivory balls apart. But Linnie is such a sympathetic character, and her voice so touching and believable, that you forgive Jaivin her little peccadilloes.
More than anything, this is a novel about the weight of history impacting on the present, the persistence of love and memory, the redeeming power of fiction and imagination to redress the hurts of the past. And it’s a wonderful evocation of China, in all her bewildering, dazzling fusa-ness.