Spanning three countries and a World War, from the inner sanctum of the Forbidden City to the sodden streets of Shanghai’s most iniquitous quarter, it can’t be argued that The Private Papers Of Eastern Jewel is an unambitious novel. Maureen Lindley, writing at a time of personal anguish as acknowledged in the book’s preface, has embellished a few existing documented facts of a perplexing and hated historical figure with a few hundred pages of sympathetic fiction prompting a mixed degree of success.
Peking, 1914: eight-year-old Eastern Jewel, daughter of Prince Su’s last concubine and cousin to child Emperor Pu Yi (yes, that Pu Yi from Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor), is a rebellious child. Highly intelligent but quite the contrary child, Eastern Jewel’s conduct in refusing to adhere to the strictures of the royal court sees her banished to a distant but respectable family in Japan.
Now known by her adopted handle of Yoshiko Kawashima, Eastern Jewel’s feisty nature can’t be subdued throughout her teenage years as the subservient and, crucially, compliant female role demanded of her. Owing to her insatiable sexual curiosity, Yoshiko is forcibly married off to a Mongolian warlord in order to avoid further shame being brought upon the Kawashima clan.
Once in Mongolia, Yoshiko’s manipulative nature blossoms as she discovers how her serpentine abilities can serve her own base ends. Seducing and then abandoning her warlord husband’s own brother to effect her escape, Yoshiko eventually winds up in the decadent and dangerous city of 1930s Shanghai (a Shanghai far closer to J.G. Ballard’s literary version of Empire Of The Sun than Steven Spielberg’s sanitised film treatment) with the Japanese invasion of China in full swing. Extracting all the benefits of her adopted Japanese nationality, Yoshiko goes to work as a Japanese spy, infiltrating the highest echelons of Chinese society with a secret mission that involves deposed Emperor Pu Yi himself and signals Yoshiko’s own ignominious end at the hands of her betrayed countrymen…
Yoshiko Kawashima, as author Maureen Lindley professes she would have wanted to be called, is a polarising figure. Remembered only as a traitor in China, and regarded somewhat more favourably in Japan despite being recognised as “only” being Chinese, Yoshiko is a deeply unpleasant heroine; conflicted, complex and utterly self-centred. Yet Lindley has made great pains to elaborate on the private character behind the public mask; here’s exactly where the narrative starts to hit the skids. Lindley is overly keen to create sympathy for, rather than empathy with, her undeniably selfish heroine. Each act of Yoshiko, from the tragic to the traiterous, is given equal weight in overt justification leaving the reader in no doubt where the author’s allegiances lie.
The sights and smells of each location, and indeed the etiquette of the time, are vividly realised by Lindley. No description is spared, especially in the torrid and often tawdry sexual escapades in which Yoshiko engages. In fact, there’s so much detail in Yoshiko’s daily intake of sake, opium and Shanghai short-time boys that it strains credulity that Lindley’s fictional version of the real Eastern Jewel could even stand upright let alone operate effectively as one of Imperial Japan’s foremost spies.
Nonetheless, The Private Papers Of Eastern Jewel is an engaging, if slight, novel. It’s easy to rattle through the pages and the book does provide an insight to two mighty countries in turmoil; a stepping stone to more serious historical tomes should the reader so desire.