This remarkable novel fictionalises the extraordinary life of Tzu Hsi, the last Empress of China. I was utterly enthralled from start to finish. Chosen to be a concubine, she rose to become head of the Qing dynasty through her own intelligence, diligence and careful planning. She studies determinedly to understand affairs of state and eventually rules with a mixture of altruism, serenity and extreme ruthlessness. Only a writer as skilled as Pearl S. Buck could have brought such a complex and ambiguous character to life so vividly; I empathised so deeply with the Empress that even her acts of violence seemed necessary to sustain the most important thing: the integrity of the nation. Her central struggle is the preservation of the ancient ways against Western industrial and cultural influence.
The writing has a few of the hallmarks of fairytale at the start, easing the reader in and emphasising the glorious setting, customs and costumes as if other-worldly. This contrasts starkly with the real political and personal trials that Tzu Hsi encounters. The details are magnificent – I think I’ll adopt the ancient tradition of having the day off the first day that the wisteria blooms. The description is perfection: ‘her thoughts circled about him like mourning doves’ and ‘ancient twisted trees were planted and tended as carefully as though they were human, and indeed some of the trees were given human titles, such as duke or king.’
I am totally fascinated by this era of history. As soon as I had finished reading, I went straight online to learn as much as I could about the Empress and to find images of her and the palaces she so adored. I spent many hours in a Wikipedia hole.
Since finishing this book I have tried to start a few others, but nothing is taking my interest. A book this vivid, evocative and riveting is proving hard to follow.