Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang Reviews Karen Kao’s The Dancing Girl and The Turtle

Mercilessly brutal, terrifying, compelling

When Song Anyi arrives in Shanghai she is already broken.   After her parents die her Uncle tells her to wait at home until he sends for her.  But tempted by thoughts of freedom and bright lights in Shanghai, she disobeys and embarks on the journey alone.  En route she is raped by soldiers and left for dead.

Delivered by farmers to her Uncle’s house in Shanghai, outwardly at least Anyi is nursed back to health.  Her cousin, Cho, falls in love with her but Anyi is offered in marriage to a much older man.  To cope with the shame of her rape, for which her Aunt blames her, she meets pain with pain, and starts to self harm. Determined to escape the arranged marriage and be mistress of her own fate, she has few options.   Constrained by custom and social traditions, she turns to prostitution, specialising in violence.

Anyi becomes the Dancing Girl and her lover, Cho, the Turtle, the name for hangers on at the Metropole Gardens where she works.  The two of them are trapped in the complex world of 1930s Shanghai: fighting to survive the depravities in dance halls, gambling houses, and opium dens against the political back drop of Shanghai’s international concessions, the gangsters, and the coming war with the Japanese.

Kao writes in a minimalist present tense, each word meticulously chosen and exquisitely placed in the manner of a poet. The rhythm of her prose was reminiscent of spoken Chinese.  She carefully manages multiple points of view to good effect.

At first the violence is hinted at, masked, not entirely spelt out, but as the book progresses and the characters sink into more and more depravity and despair, Kao does not shrink from telling it like it was.  The real power of this novel lies in the gradual unveiling of the brutal realities.

The historical setting too is well done. At times I would have liked to have seen more made of the political tensions around the battle for the future of China.  This might have heightened the suspense. However, I appreciate that where to draw the line on historical background is always a tricky one for a historical novelist.  On balance Kao has probably got it right.

The Dancing Girl and The Turtle shocked and horrified me with its brutality. But guided by Kao’s skilful narration, I had the courage to read on.  Every page I searched for a glimmer of compassion.  Just at the end when I thought there would be none, I was rewarded by the genuine friendship between Anyi and the “negro” bouncer at the gambling club.

I almost lost the plot in the chaotic denouement, but then the world of drug addicts, Japanese intelligence officers, gamblers and prostitutes who have lost the will to live, does not volunteer happy endings.

Karen Kao is a master of the Noir. There has got to be more to come?

THE DANCING GIRL AND THE TURTLE (2017) is published by Linen Press.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a UK based author.  THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA was her first novel.