REVIEW: The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel

This is one of my random picks at the recent Big Bad Wolf book sale. I judge the book by its cover and I am not apologizing for it. I have this inexplicable desire to read Asian authors or Asian themes nowadays after finding myself getting tired of YA novels (of course I should get tired of it, I’m almost 40 years old!). I had been reading YA literature for a while because I always thought I will graduate as a YA novelist. I am also now taking a pause from my fantasy reads because Tamora Pierce gave me headaches (for a different reason, not because her writing was subpar).

Anyway, I was duped by that one line that says, “‘Breathtaking’–Adeline Yen Mah” on the cover

Because I liked Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter since 1) her prose is not that difficult to read and; 2) I liked how she described the political and social milieu, the context, and how that shaped the story. So I was thinking Eastern Jewel was indeed good.

It’s supposed to be good. How can it not be when the subject is a real-life Manchu princess who was banished to Japan, married off to a Mongol prince, escaped Mongolia, then came back to China as a Japanese spy?

But Maureen Lindley bungled it. She really bungled it big time. It could have been a fascinating fictionalized story of a real-life adventuress if it had been handled well but all it had was the sexual exploits of a really baaaaaaaaaaaaaad person. I am having a hard time finishing this novel but I have to so I can move on to my other new books. And I’m no prude, so that says a lot.

As a writer, Lindley was passable in the sense that she is not as horrible as the creators of the Twilight Series and Fifty Shades (I never got past the first chapter of Fifty Shades, it was like a mangled fanfic). However, I have issues with her storytelling. Good writers show, they just don’t tell. (This is the same mantra for us journalists as well). Lindley doesn’t need to tell her readers in plain language that Yoshiko Kawashima was a horrible person (“I am bad.” LOL). Her thought process and description of her deeds were enough to show readers that her moral compass was off. The writer lacks that sophistication that allows a reader to peel layers upon layers of this complex person. In the hands of a master storyteller, Yoshiko could have been much more than the caricature that Lindley had painted.

In addition, Lindley’s writing–about the cultures (Japanese and Chinese) she hasn’t lived or experienced first-hand–feels contrived. Her description of Shanghai, the rooms she had lived in, and the life Yoshiko supposed to have lived in Tokyo made me feel like the author just wanted to paint the story as a really exotic one. Like it was meant for clueless Westerners. But these were just merely descriptions, without rhyme nor reason. I could feel in her prose that she doesn’t have a good grasp of the culture, the milieu, of the people she was writing about. She merely relied on rhetoric, which can easily be picked up from historical texts. Another giveaway was how Yoshiko observed, as Lindley wrote, that Empress Wan Jung called Manchukuo (the Japanese puppet state located in the Northeast now part of the Three Northeast provinces/Dongbei) as Manchuria, the alleged Chinese name. But according to historical texts, the Chinese never called it Manchuria, only the Westerners did since Manchuria was a Western/Japanese construct. Yes, there are Manchus (a Japanese construct/translation of Manshu/Manzhou) but no Manchuria.

According to Nakami Tatsuo, Philip Franz von Siebold was the one who brought the usage of the term Manchuria to Europeans after borrowing it from the Japanese, who were the first to use it in a geographic manner in the eighteenth century although neither the Manchu nor Chinese languages had a term in their own language equivalent to “Manchuria” as a geographic place name.[12] The Manchu and Chinese languages had no such word as “Manchuria” and the word has imperialist connotations.[13]

In contrast, Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth), who is another Westerner writing about another culture not her own, had a better handle of the subject. She wrote about Wang Lung from a third-person point of view. Her writing captivated me, her prose clear and uncomplicated. She had the ability to transport me to China, to the middle of that devastating flood, to make me weep for O-Lan, to imprint in my mind the line that says Wang Lung cannot divorce O-Lan because it was like cutting a part of him, like his hand, but he cannot help being addicted to his favorite concubine. She made me feel the gravity of the earth, the preciousness of it, the beauty and madness of it. Buck had knowledge of the culture, of the people she wrote about–albeit as a spectator and not part of it–because she grew up in China as a child of missionaries and spent a good part of her adult life back in China.

So back to Lindley. I hate her for wallowing in so much BDSM like that was the only essence of Yoshiko. Yeah, the subject is probably hypersexualized than normal Chinese/Japanese but really, that is all you can write about this fascinating character?

Three stars for effort and lucid prose.