Surviving by her wits alone, Lotus charges headlong into the neon lights of Shenzhen, determined to pull herself out of the gutter and decide her own path. She’s different than the other streetwalkers—reserved, even defiant, Lotus holds her secrets behind her red smile.
The new millennium should’ve brought her better luck, but for now she leads a double life, wiring the money home to her family and claiming she earns her wages waiting tables. Her striking eyes catch the attention of many, but Lotus weighs her options between becoming the concubine of a savvy migrant worker or a professional girlfriend to a rich and powerful playboy. Or she may choose the kind and decent Hu Binbing, a photojournalist reporting on China’s underground sex trade—who has a hidden past of his own. She knows that fortunes can shift with the toss of a coin and, in the end, she may make a choice that leads her on a different journey entirely.
I enjoyed Lotus but it wasn’t love at first sight. I had a hard time getting into the prose – Zhang’s writing style isn’t experimental or dramatic, but it took a while to align the way my mind moves with her words. Once I did I found myself drawn into the story of Lotus, a prostitute inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, and photojournalist Bing.
The style is simple and belies the well-laid out plot and deep characterization at work. We meet characters as whole people and learn more about their back story and motivations as the chapters go by. Later information never invalidates a previous action but adds depth and nuance. Over time the characters, including minors ones, become even more real. They change and grow due to later events, pulling us through without the need for a gripping A through B to C plot.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot. We watch as Lotus makes her way in the world, trying to find the best path among many lousy options. How can she find herself, then be true that person? Who is her ally, and who is better left behind? Bing has choices of his own tied up with money and love, as well as a past that won’t let him go.
I was worried that the ending would be overly sad or maudlin but Zhang crafts a satisfying conclusion that took me by surprise while being true to all the characterization that leads up to it. Lotus is interesting for its craft and story and is great for those looking for something grounded yet out of the ordinary.
Thanks to Henry Holt & Company and NetGalley for providing a review copy.