From the Man-Booker longlisted author of FAR TO GO, comes an unforgettable memoir about family secrets, depression, and the author's journey to reconnect with her Jewish identity.
Alison Pick was born in the 1970s and raised in a loving, supportive family, but as a teenager she made a discovery that changed her understanding of who she was for ever. She learned that her Pick grandparents, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia during WWII, were Jewish, and that most of this side of the family had died in concentration camps. At this stage she realised that her own father had kept this a secret from Alison and her sister. Engaged to be married to her longterm boyfriend but in the grip of a crippling depression, Alison began to uncover her Jewish heritage, a quest which challenged all her assumptions about her faith, her future, and what it meant to raise a family. An unusual and gripping story, told with all the nuance and drama of a novel, this is a memoir illuminated with heartbreaking insight into the very real lives of the dead, and hard-won hope for all those who carry on after.
I would like to thank both Alison Pick and Bookbridgr for a review copy of this book.
I don't tend to review non-fiction very often but when I read the blurb for this book I found myself compelled to read it.
Alison Pick discovered at a young age that her family had once been Jewish and that her grandparents had fled Europe during World War II in a hope of running from the carnage that tore countries apart and resulted in the horrific murder of millions of people. As a result of this revelation Pick found herself drawn to the cultural heritage and lives of her family as well as others who, like her, were trying to work out where they belonged. Her journey forwards leads her down paths she wasn't expecting and she soon realises that reclaiming her heritage will not be as easy as she thought.
Pick writes her memoir with honesty and compassion for those lost, looking at her family with sincere interest and respect. Her resulting memoir tells of her journey towards finding the truth hidden under decades of secrets and denial and her acceptance of the way she wants to live her life and the people she meets along the way.
The setting is China's Forbidden City in the last days of its imperial glory, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. In this highly ordered place -- tradition-bound, ruled by strict etiquette, rife with political and erotic tension -- the Emperor, "the Son of Heaven," performs two duties: he must rule the court and conceive an heir. To achieve the latter, tradition provides a stupendous hierarchy of hundreds of wives and concubines. It is as a minor concubine that the beautiful Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as a girl, enters the Forbidden City at the age of seventeen. It is not a good time to enter the city. The Ch'ing Dynasty in 1852 has lost its vitality, and the court has become an insular, xenophobic place. A few short decades earlier, China lost the Opium Wars, and it has done little since to strengthen its defenses or improve diplomatic ties. Instead, the inner circle has turned further inward, naively confident that its troubles are past and the glory of China will keep the "barbarians" -- the outsiders -- at bay. Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a misstep are deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor, Orchid soon discovers that she must take matters into her own hands. After training herself in the art of pleasing a man, she bribes her way into the royal bedchamber and seduces the monarch. A grand love affair ensues; the Emperor is a troubled man, but their love is passionate and genuine. Orchid has the great good fortune to bear him a son. Elevated to the rank of Empress, she still must struggle to maintain her position and the right to raise her own child. With the death of the Emperor comes a palace coup that ultimately thrusts Orchid into power, although only as regent until her son's maturity. Now she must rule China as its walls tumble around her, and she alone seems capable of holding the country together. This is an epic story firmly in the mold of Anchee Min's Becoming Madame Mao. Like that best-selling historical novel, the heroine of Empress Orchid comes down to us with a diabolical reputation -- a woman who seized power through sexual seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. But reality tells a different story. Based on copious research, this is a vivid portrait of a flawed yet utterly compelling woman who survived in a male world, a woman whose main struggle was not to hold on to power but to her own humanity. Richly detailed and completely gripping, Empress Orchid is a novel of high drama and lyricism and the first volume of a trilogy about the life of one of the most important women in history.
I always find it interesting when in the past people have said to me that women were deemed both unimportant and uninvolved in the ancient history of the world. The truth is of course the opposite and I love reading historical novels that help to hone this point. Anchee Min's Empress Orchid is a fantastic example of this. Set in 19th century China at the heart of the Forbidden City Min tells the story of a lowly concubine's rise to power and her determination not to be overlooked amongst thousands of other women.
Orchid, a poor girl from a family slowly starving and struggling to survive finds herself in the grasp of being forced into an undesired marriage when an opportunity presents itself that allows her to not only change her own fate, but the fate of her family too. Suddenly Orchid is thrust into a world of bitter resentment, betrayal and beauty and she soon realises that in order to survive and retain her sanity she would need to find her way into the Emperor's life and sets out to achieve her goal, no matter the cost.
I found Empress Orchid utterly compelling. Through brilliant writing Min has brought the character and the world surrounding her to life. From start to finish I found myself hooked by the tragedy, anger and intrigue that existed in Empress Orchid's world and I am thoroughly looking forward to reading her sequel The Last Empress.
I recommend this book highly and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.