Hillary Jordan’s A Partial Review of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter from Shanghai


painter from shanghai

The Painter from Shanghai, Jennifer Cody Epstein, WW Norton

That’s partial as in biased, not as in incomplete. Jennifer Cody Epstein, who will henceforth be known as Jenn, is not only a dear friend of mine, but she also entrusted me with three or four (or possibly five) drafts of The Painter from Shanghai during the six years it took her to write it. And vice versa — Jenn was one of the two primary readers for Mudbound, and I hate to think how many versions of it she read and painstakingly critiqued. In essence, we were midwives for each other’s novels. So, this “review,” if it can even properly be called that, will not only be partial, it will be unabashedly so. Painter isn’t my baby, but having assisted in its nurture and birth, I love it almost as much as if it were.

The title refers to Pan Yuliang, a real-life Chinese Impressionist painter who, because of her sex and her provocative subject matter (nudes of herself and other women), was a controversial figure in early Twentieth-Century China. Yuliang’s is a rags to rags story, but with love and self-realization as an artist along the way. Orphaned as a child and sold into a “flower house” at the age of fourteen by her opium-addicted uncle, she endures three brutal years in the incongruously named “Hall of Eternal Splendor,” eventually becoming the brothel’s top girl. Just when the humiliations of prostitution and the murder of her only friend threaten to crush her spirit, she meets Pan Zanhua, a customs inspector, at a banquet. A man of compassion and honor, Zanhua falls in love with Yuliang and buys her contract from the brothel, making her his concubine or “little wife.” Under his patient guidance and care, she begins slowly to regain her self-respect and to open her heart to love. She learns to read and write, and in secret, starts to sketch and then to study painting. She applies to the Shanghai Art School and is one of only a few women to be accepted. Furious at first at Yuliang’s deception, Zanhua eventually supports her artistic ambitions, even though they take her away from him, first to Paris and then to Rome, to study painting. After four years abroad, she returns to China and causes a huge scandal with an exhibition of her Western-influenced nudes. In the end, she must make an agonizing choice between her vocation and her love.

The events of Pan Yuliang’s life, set against the political and cultural upheavals that rocked China in the first half of the last century, are the stuff great stories are made of. But Jenn is equally if not more interested in Yuliang’s inner life, in the complex emotional landscape she crosses during her journey from innocent to prostitute to wife to artist and exile. Describing those emotions, painting a meticulous, fully realized picture of them, is Jenn’s special talent. She deftly uses the details of Yuliang’s observations to inform and horrify us, as in this scene where she is being raped by the man who bought her virginity (which was sold to the highest bidder by the madam of the brothel): “He pushes, two, three, four times. ‘Ahhh. You are sweet, girl. So sweet . . .” His throat is a black tunnel, a dangling glob of glistening pink. She shuts her eyes. She is a melon, and he’s splitting her open. She will break.”

This is an intimate and often disturbing portrait of a woman, not for the faint of heart. It is also a poignant rendering of the artist’s path: the curiosity, the self-doubt and fear of failure, the obsession, the agony of criticism, the pride, the loneliness, the fierce protectiveness of one’s work, and the ultimate willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary for it. It is the path Jenn herself took when she was writing this book. I watched her do it. And the result is enduring, inspiring, beautiful, enlarging — everything a piece of art should be.

A Dark Time in the Delta: Jayne Pupek reviews Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound


mudbound

 

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books

 

Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut novel, Mudbound, is a compelling and disturbing portrayal of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and the bitter racial divide that marked this period of our history. Jordan’s story is convincingly told from the alternating viewpoints of her characters: the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family.

 

Memphis-born Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm–a place she nicknames Mudbound because of the constant muck that covers everything. With no running water, inside bathroom, or electricity, this is not the life Laura knew or expected. She tries to makes the best of her situation, a task that becomes more difficult when her calloused and bigoted father-in law comes to live with them.

 

The Jacksons, the black sharecropping family who live and work on the McAllan’s land, struggle to make ends meet. Hap farms the land while his wife Florence works as Laura’s maid. When Hap ends up bedridden, the family’s struggle intensifies.

 

While the McAllans and Jacksons face hardships, they maintain a precarious but peaceful coexistence until Henry McAllan’s younger brother Jamie, and Ronsel, the Jackson’s oldest son, return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, possesses qualities her husband lacks. He is handsome, daring, and charming. He is also haunted by memories of combat and drinks excessively to chase away his demons. Ronsel Jackson returns a war hero, but his brave defense of his country does nothing to change how he is viewed in the Jim Crow South. When he dares to exit a store though the front door reserved for whites, the anger of the locals remind him little has changed in the Mississippi Delta. Ronsel reflects:

I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the longer that’s all I was.

Ronsel and Jamie embark on an unlikely friendship that continues despite warnings and objections not only from their families, but also from other townsfolk who disapprove of their bond. The novel accelerates in a breathtaking pace toward a conclusion that is both horrifying and unforgettable.

 

One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the skill with which Jordan reveals her characters through six alternating voices. This technique allows the reader to see characters as not only they appear to themselves, but also as they appear to the other characters who narrate the story. The result is a more dimensional view of each individual. Laura, for example, sees Pappy’s overt racism, but she would not describe herself in those same terms. It is only when we witness Laura through Florence’s eyes that we see Laura’s more subtle acts of racism.

 

If I have any complaint at all, it is that the characters tend to be too clearly divided between heroes and villains. Pappy, for instance, is a bigoted and hateful man who shows kindness to no one. While his complete lack of any goodness makes it easy for the reader to cheer his ultimate demise, I think it is perhaps too easy. I find characters at their most compelling and authentic when they possess some balance of good and bad traits.

 

It is little surprise that Mudbound was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. Jordan has employed the finest storytelling skills to illuminate a dark and shameful part of our history. Mudbound is a stellar accomplishment by a gifted new novelist.

 

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Jayne Pupek is the author of the recently released novel, Tomato Girl (Algonquin Books), and a book of poems titled Forms of Intercession (Mayapple Press). She resides near Richmond, Virginia.