Book review: The Empress Lover, by Linda Jaivin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:17pm

The Empress Lover
by Linda Jaivin
Fourth Estate
4 stars

Sue Green

On June 4, the 25th anniversary of the government crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square was marked around the world. So it is apposite that in this latest novel by a US-born Australian writer closely connected with China for almost four decades, those events have a central role.

This is the seventh novel by Linda Jaivin, onetime journalist, now a short story and playwright, non-fiction author and essayist, including essays on China. Her work ranges from bestselling erotica to the story of her friendship with Taiwanese singer-songwriter Hou Dejian, who took part in the protests (Jaivin was also in Beijing then).

The Empress Lover draws on these seemingly disparate threads as Jaivin skilfully interweaves fact and fiction, contemporary events with those of Beijing in 1989 and in 1944, within a narrative rich with literary, poetic and philosophical references.

Australian translator Linnie was raised by her aunt and uncle, but wears two jade bracelets left her by her mother and may be part-Chinese. She has returned to Beijing, where she lived in the 1980s, working as a film subtitler, when she receives a letter from someone claiming to know about her background, with a reference to "your honourable father".

"This, I quickly realised, was that letter, the one for which we wait our entire life."

Linnie has written an unpublished novel, The Empress Lover, inspired by reading about the Empress Dowager Cixi and the English scholar, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who claimed to be her lover. The lines between fact and fiction blur as Linnie draws on the sources Jaivin uses in documenting this momentous day in Linnie's life, her back story, including her relationship with her mysterious, missing lover Q, and Backhouse's own story.

Five years in the writing, this is a complex and ambitious undertaking. Jaivin writes with an assuredness and narrative flow undoubtedly belying the hard labour which has gone into this thoroughly researched and footnoted work. If she occasionally goes off at tangents it is to return at what is not merely a chunk of fictional history but a perceptive look at today's China, beautifully written - a carefully constructed jigsaw which is both moving and salutary.

The Empress Lover is, as with much of Jaivin's work, unlikely to see daylight on the mainland because of its political and erotic nature. Yet so many themes are universal - love, grief, the search for identity, the ability of memory to erase history. And ultimately, the nature of truth and of the reality we construct.