THE FLOWER BOAT GIRL

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The story opens on the South China coast in 1801 with a 26-year-old woman named Yang looking over at the “customer in [her] bed.” She narrates her dramatic story as it unfolds. She was sold to the floating “flower boat” brothel as a young girl by her father, but she manages to buy her freedom. But tragically, after painstakingly reclaiming her life, she’s kidnapped by a pirate gang and forced into marriage with their leader, Cheng Yat. However, she eventually pursues a new ambition—to become the most powerful pirate in the world, in her own right. Over the course of the story, her memories offer insight into her family’s dynamic, although as she remembers stories that her mother told her, the tale also keeps readers anchored in the present. The author shows how Yang’s relationships with men are informed by her early childhood trauma and, later, by the fact that the man she’s forced to marry is a captor, not a true husband. However, she grows close to Cheung Po Tsai, Cheng Yat’s young male concubine, whose mischievous aspect adds welcome levity to the fraught dynamic. Overall, this is an epic tale of a woman in 19th-century China daring to live life on her own terms: “Did it make me any less of a woman that marriage and weddings and family carried no such meaning?” Yang asks herself at one point. The pace is steady and suspenseful, and Feign’s prose style is descriptive but simple, rarely getting in the way of the narrative’s forward momentum. That said, the constant weather updates, while perhaps necessary for a seafaring tale, can feel a bit excessive; they offer some nice lines, though, such as “the sky turned the color of weak red tea.”

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