Sunday, April 13, 2008

"The Painter from Shanghai"

Jennifer Cody Epstein has written for Self, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. She has published short fiction in several journals and was a finalist in a Glimmer Train fiction contest.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Painter from Shanghai, and reported the following:
In the following months, Yuliang seeks safety in small tasks, little rituals. She forges armor out of routine. At the Hall, the “leaves” sleep at two or three and are roused promptly at seven. They take turns perching on the chamber pot’s chipped rim, behind the screen that screens nothing but their bodies. They wash up with water from a pitcher on the bureau, rub and re-bind their sore feet. They put on their “chore” clothes. Yuliang saves the cheongsam Wu gave her for the dirtiest work floor-scrubbing, or collecting chamber pots for the night-soil man. She thrills at each rip and slop, revels in the spreading stains. As the skirt unravels, she pictures it as her uncle’s frayed spirit, disintegrating.

After eating, the girls sweep the courtyard. Yuliang attacks bottle shards and crumpled call-cards. As winter approaches, gentle lines of snow fill in the space between stones, creating an illusion of checkered smoothness. Yuliang sweeps the snow out, along with the used matches that look like twisted and burnt little bones. Though she’s not supposed to, she sweeps these and other trash into the gutter. She defiantly hopes it will cause a small flood when spring comes.

The afternoons are devoted to more formal training, which Yuliang and Suyin receive in the spare pantry. They’re taught things like music, deportment. “Love.” The music teacher has a face that droops like warming wax....


Page 69 in The Painter from Shanghai gives us one of our first glimpses of the Hall of Eternal Splendor, the brothel into which fourteen-year-old Pan Yuliang has just been sold by her uncle. Though she doesn’t know it yet, it’s a world destined to indelibly shape Yuliang’s self, sexuality and her complex relationship with the vast and ancient land of her birth. It’s therefore key in her transformation into the extraordinary Western-style artist she’ll become — one who will defy traditional Confucian strictures to create the lush, Cezannesque self-portraits — many of them nude — for which she’ll gain both acclaim and notoriety. Over the next four years she will experience degradations that at this point she could never imagine — but also unexpected moments of comfort and solace in the form of Jingling, an elegant, older courtesan who will take Yuliang under her wing. She will meet the man who will ultimately rescue her from the Hall, making her his concubine in the roaring Shanghai of the late ‘teens, and later sending her to study amid the Bohemian splendor of Paris before her return to a nation torn by civil war. Ultimately, he will be part of the most wrenching choice of Pan Yuliang’s life — between love, and her great love of art.
Learn more about the novel and author at Jennifer Cody Epstein's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue