A witty, playful, intriguing and ultimately very moving novel of identity and loss.
‘Stories are the only thing that defy death. Stories are truth. I hereby give you mine…’ Peking, 1944: Sir Edmund Backhouse is a man of many parts. A polyglot scholar. An effete homosexual. A genius of perversity, a forger, arms salesman, occasional spy and fantasist. Also, if he is to be believed, the onetime lover of the redoubtable Empress Dowager of China, a woman many decades his senior. In his declining years, tended by his friend, Dr Hoeppli, he writes his memoir - ‘a wild tale’, as he calls it, ‘far-fetched and fantastical’- of his affair with the Dowager Empress. Beijing, 2014: Linnie is an Australian woman of uncertain provenance struggling to make a living in Beijing. A Sinophile, a translator of film subtitles, the author of an unpublished novel about Backhouse called The Empress Lover. One day, she receives an intriguingly old-fashioned and formal invitation from a Professor H, an invitation that promises to reveal long hidden secrets of her family… And so two worlds collide. An enchantingly slippery, sinuous, playful - and ultimately very moving - novel of love, loss, identity and history from one of Australia's finest novelists. ‘Jaivin’s writing shines and burns.’ Sunday Age
Read Caroline Baum's Review
Anything that Linda Jaivin writes about China is worth reading. For my money, I prefer her essays to her fiction. Her latest offering is a peculiar hybrid. It's a novel but with many digressions into history and journalistic asides. It is a sort of speculation or confection, a meandering hallway of Chinese whispers.
Shifting between the 1940s and today, it tells the story of an effete scholar who may or may not have been the lover of the Empress Dowager of China, and that of Linnie, an Australian woman who works as a translator subtitling films in Beijing (which Jaivin herself has done).
Rich with cultural detail and comment, the book displays Jaivin's enthusiasm and curiosity for the secrets and untold stories of Imperial China and the foreigners who become entangled in its labyrinthine web of intrigue. Her approach is playful, chaotic, disorienting, rich with atmospherics, even if somewhat short on plot. But maybe getting lost is the point.
About the Author
Linda Jaivin is the internationally published author of nine books, seven fiction and two non-fiction. Her first novel, Eat Me, was a best-seller in both Australia and overseas. Her fifth novel, The Infernal Optimist, was short-listed for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and has been optioned for a feature film. The Empress Lover is her seventh novel. Linda is also the author of numerous published short stories and essays, including Quarterly Essay 52: Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World. She has also written for the theatre and is a literary and film translator from Chinese.