This elegant novel breaks barriers with its brutally honest account of the courtesan culture in 1930s Shanghai. In a searing portrayal of women as commodities, we trace the journey of Song Anyi, a rebellious young woman thwarted by her conventional family, the social mores of the day and the war with the Japanese that is about to engulf China.
Rarely does a novel enter so deeply into the world of the Chinese who lived and died in Shanghai. Using language spare and taut, this novel captures a complex and cruel society. Karen Kao writes:
There is violence in this novel, just as there is violence in the lives of many women. Anyi is the voice of every woman denied a place at the table and every girl whose shame led her to self-harm.
Song Anyi is on the road to Shanghai and freedom when she is raped and left for dead. The family silence and shame that meet her courageous survival drive Anyi to escalating self-harm and prostitution. From opium dens to high-class brothels, Anyi dances on the edge of destruction while China prepares for war with Japan. Hers is the voice of every woman who fights for independence against overwhelming odds.
The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is one of four interlocking novels set in Shanghai from 1929 to 1954. Through the eyes of the dancer, Song Anyi, and her brother Kang, The Shanghai Quartet spans a tumultuous time in Chinese history: war with the Japanese, the influx of stateless Jews into Shanghai, civil war and revolution. How the love of a sister destroys her brother and all those around him.
Who is Karen Kao?
Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1950s.
As a young lawyer in Washington, DC, she fell in love with a Dutchman. Karen moved with him to Amsterdam. Unfazed by a new language, culture and legal system, she launched a second career as a high-flying corporate lawyer.
In 2011, she abandoned the law for a third career: a return to her love of writing and the stories she heard as a child of Old Shanghai. She writes: ‘My heart belongs to Shanghai. It’s the star of my novel.’
Karen is a poet, short story writer and essayist. Her publishing credits include: ‘Moon Cakes‘, a short story published last June in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal; ‘A View from Backstage‘, featured on the TedXAmsterdam 2015 website; ‘Words Fly By‘, a short story in Jabberwock Review (2014) and subsequently featured in a review of that journal posted on NewPages alongside poems that were published in the 1980’s by Yusef Komunyakaa. She is a former student of Lan Samantha Chang from the Paris Writers Workshop (2013) and of Yiyun Li at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (2016).
The pre-publication launch of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle will be held at the University of Westminster on 25th March 2017 in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press. Karen Kao will talk about her book as the keynote speaker in an event which will celebrate Linen Press’s tenth birthday. Watch this space for more details.
Read more from Karen on the publication of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, on her blog.