The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel: A Novel

 

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2.0 out of 5 stars Soft eroticism by way of China and Japan

Sexually repressed Westerners have a long tradition of imposing their fantasies on the East. To those who have not spent time there, the Asian countries are seen as a magical land, one of drifting clouds of opium smoke and smooth red and blue silks covering smoother skin, a land where everything is permissible and the darkest, forbidden desires can be acted out with abandon.

It was this same fantasy that caused Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to paint his famous circular portrait of the harem of the Turkish Baths, a sight he had never seen and in truth lived only in his imagination. The technical term for this, as supplied by Edward Said, is Orientalism.

Maureen Lindley’s first novel “The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel” is dripping with Orientalism. Although claming to be based on the story of an actual historical figure, Aisin Gioro Xianyu AKA Kawashima Yoshiko AKA Dongzhen which translates into English as “Eastern Jewel,” Lindley’s versions of China and Japan are as much a fantasyland as Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Many Western authors of Asian-themed titles tout their credentials in the author’s biography, their expertise in Asian cultures and time spent living there. Lindley is simply listed as “Born in England and raised in Scotland,” currently living in Wales. More tellingly still, in her acknowledgments section there are few if any Asian names (A single person named “Lee” is the only possibility), showing that “The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel” is merely a British woman’s fantasy of a lifestyle and location she has never really known. Lindley admits she was first inspired to write about Kawashima during a brief glimpse of her in the Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor.

It is really too bad, because Kawashima Yoshiko was a fascinating character who deserves better. Adopted from her royal Chinese family at a young age, she was raped by her step-father and then, after a failed suicide attempt, began wearing men’s clothing. A failed marriage to a Mongolian General’s son ended in divorce after two years, after which she was recruited as a spy and propaganda agent for the Japanese. At one point, Kawashima was head of a cavalry of 5,000 reformed bandits, and lead charges against the Chinese insurgents gaining her the title of “Japan’s Joan of Arc.” As a champion of the Japanese military government, Kawashima was a villain to be sure, one who caused the deaths and downfall of many innocents in the name of Japanese ethnic cleansing and superiority, but she was an interesting villain to say the least.

But all of this real-life drama was apparently not enough for Lindley, who cast Kawashima in the role of sexual adventurer, whose life is not defined by her accomplishments but by the long list of her lovers and
the sensual nature of her clothes and lifestyle. “The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel” is pure housewife fantasy, almost a faux Asian version of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, but with none of that books importance or impact. Lindley entirely fails to breathe life into any of her characters, who are mere one-dimensional stereotypes whose names are quickly forgotten. Anytime a male character is introduced by name, a sex scene soon follows.

But even the sex scenes are too tame. Perhaps if Lindley had gone the distance and just written full-blown erotica, there would have been some excitement and pulse-pounding. But this is all euphemistic soft-core, with “snakes playing in caves” and other silly turns of phrases. Lindley’s preferences are on display as well, as the male-male couplings and male-female couplings occupy several paragraphs while the single female-female tryst is barely commented on and then only in a perfunctory and obligatory manner. (All of the sex scenes do make for some incidental humor, however. While they take up a large percentage of the book, actual important scenes in Kawashima’s life, such as when she became the head of the China Gold Mining Association merits only half a sentence, and is then barely mentioned again.)

I could go on about this, as Lindley has written plenty to dislike here. Her writing style leaves a lot to be desired, and there are so many “I” statements (I went to..I wore…I saw..) that each use of the word “I” becomes like a little needle poking you in the head. But there are some little redemptions, so scenes that work and some imagery that is effective. The final paragraph in particular is striking, almost as if it was written by a different author.

Readers who enjoy Oriental romance might enjoy “The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel.” If all you are looking for is to be seduced by the fantasy of a world that never existed, one where you can smoke opium all day without becoming an addict, where the money never stops flowing and around every corner is a new book-cover man, perhaps a rough American journalist or a stern but understanding Japanese military captain, then this just might be the book for you. If you liked that other popular slice of Orientalism, Memoirs of a Geisha, but thought it needed a whole lot more sex and some guy-on-guy action, then this book should be right up your alley.

If you are looking to learn more about the real-life Kawashima Yoshiko, I recommend Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. It is not the sensual pleasure palace you will find in Lindley’s book, but real life never pleases in quite the same way as fantasy.

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