Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton

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Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton

Buy Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: There are many good novels about the trails and courage of Chinese women in various historical periods, but Eaton’s book is outstanding, in that as well as a tense and dramatic narrative, it also provides a most insightful but easily readable insight into classical Chinese poetry, and a thoughtful approach to life's hardships through a Taoist philosophy. Not to be missed!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 280 Date: December 2011
Publisher: Singing Dragon
ISBN: 978-1848190924

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In ninth century China, Hung Tu was almost unique as a woman breaking into the restricted male preserve of education, particularly the fields of poetry and calligraphy, and becoming a highly respected and renowned writer. Eaton constructs a fascinating narrative around her poems, imagining Hung Tu’s idyllic childhood which turns to potential chaos as she is sold into prostitution, followed by her rise to Official Hostess for the Governor.

Eaton was a poet herself, and prolific author, but also a war correspondent in Burma and China, and her appreciation and understanding of Chinese history and culture infuses this novel. Throughout there is not merely the often beautiful physical atmosphere of Cheng-tu, a provincial city of the ninth century, but she also creates a sense of the quiet and restrained formality of behaviour in stark contrast to the violence and turmoil of the political environment.

Hung Tu is the daughter of a Government official who falls upon hard times and she is sold to become a Flower-in-the-mist, an entertainer/prostitute in a high class establishment. The novel details her friendships with the senior hostess, with other girls and with the resident poet, showing how she develops both as a poet and a person, both accepting but also creatively adapting her life to potentially dangerous and humiliating circumstances. Her life moves through positions of power, love, to degradation and almost annihilation, but her essentially Taoist philosophy of adaptation to the forces and circumstances of events emerges as the prime force of the novel.

While Hung Tu herself is intelligent and resourceful, it is her reliance of knowledge from the classic idea of the Tao which enable her to retain her balance and survive throughout the turmoil of eighth and ninth centuries. Essentially this is captured in the careful language of the key characters, their habit of seeing the human dilemmas and crisis through the sayings and quotations from classical Chinese literature.

But most of all in this beautiful book it is the poetry of Hung Tu herself which unites and translates this from being one of many books about women in China into a tremendous work of art. If you have never encountered the wonderful imagist world of Chinese poetry, this is an ideal introduction, because Eaton cleverly contextualises the poems into the imagined circumstances of Hung Tu’s life, while also showing us how the symbolism and images work to express complex emotions within this formal world. The poems weave a world of formal beauty but also of sincere emotion, of complex codes and social nuances, but also infused with the Taoist account of the meaning of human existence. It is no wonder that this Singing Dragon edition closes with a collection of the poems themselves.

Another stunning book about the experience of Chinese women is Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran, a collection of short stories which tell of China’s tragic past. Peony in Love by Lisa See explores the seventeenth century Chinese woman, and again links to classical literature by using the narrative of the Chinese Opera The Peony Pavilion. Both make fascinating contrasts to Eaton's book.

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Buy Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Go Ask the River by Evelyn Eaton at Amazon.com.


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