I have begun to read and subsequently abandoned two novels which I was very excited about of late – The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. The reasons as to why neither story really gelled with me are as follows.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
I have very much enjoyed Tan’s work to date, and when I spotted this beautiful behemoth in the library, I picked it up immediately (and then silently cursed it on the way home for weighing me down). It is an enormous book, and took Tan eight years to write. The story begins in 1905, and tells of Violet Minturn, the daughter of an American woman who ‘grows up in the confines of Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house’. When the Emperor is deposed in 1912 and ‘celebrations rock the city, a cruel act of deception separates Violet from her mother and she is forced to become a virgin courtesan’.
Throughout, the novel is told using the first person perspectives of Violet and her mother, but from the very start, it does not feel quite real. There is an unusual sense of detachment which plants its seeds from the first. Stylistically, it is much the same as Tan’s other books, what with the use of Chinese and American nationalities and the differences between the two, the female perspective, and telling the same story from the point of view of more than one character. The cultural details which Tan includes are relatively interesting, but sadly, it felt as though there was nothing at all original about The Valley of Amazement. I did not have the patience to read through six hundred rather large pages, and am now unsure as to whether I will read more of Tan’s future publications.
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
On reflection, this was probably an odd choice of book to take with me on a long weekend to France, dealing as it does with segregation in South Africa. July’s People was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so I was expecting great things from it. I really liked the storyline, and the way in which Gordimer challenged the racial differences which were so prevalent at the time:
“The members of the Smales family, a liberal white couple and three young children, are rescued from the terror [in which armed militants ruthlessly killed innocents all over the country] by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village.”
In terms of its prose style, it was not at all as I had thought it would be. Gordimer writes in a contemporary manner – she does not use conventional techniques, but instead puts dashes in the place of speech marks, occasionally starts sentences with lowercase letters, and so on. For me, July’s People was not executed as well as it could have been. The whole felt too matter-of-fact and rather detached to be an absorbing novel. Based upon my experiences with this book, I am not sure I’ll be trying to read more of Gordimer’s fiction any time soon.