The book is THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI: A NOVEL by Jennifer Cody Epstein, published in 2008. Though it is a work of historical fiction, the painter is based on a real artist - Pan Yuliang, who had trained in Shanghai and Paris. Yuliang was the first Chinese painter to paint in a modernist western style. After heavy criticism of her work in China in the 1930’s, she moved to Paris in 1937 where she lived and worked for the next 40 years. After her death much of her work was returned to China. In the fictional story (which seems to follow closely to the painter’s biographical events) Pan Yuliang is sold into prostitution at the age of 14 years old by her opium addicted uncle who she lived with after her parents had both died. I caution that Epstein’s writing is vivid, uncompromising and not much about the harsh reality of a young girl entering a Chinese brothel is left to our imagination during this period of her life. Yet, I can hardly stop myself from reading one page after another and eventually she escapes into what will soon become her life as an artist. The book is written as if painted, laying the words in such a way that impressions dance lively In our imaginations and sometimes the quick and quavering breath of the characters have us crouching within the pages - avoiding the whip of Godmother or the drunken breath of a merchant client.
Again, in this story, I am drawn to our desire for solitude…
Yuliang has just arrived at her new home, an ancient house in old Shanghai, where she has thrown open the bedroom rice paper window. It is 1916.
”Breathing deeply, Yuliang thinks: I am alone. It’s surprisingly liberating. Not that she doesn’t love her new husband but after three days in close quarters, she is looking forward to having her own thoughts again…”
I do recommend this novel but be warned - it is likely a read that will leave you in a different place than the one where you were before you read the first paragraph!