Leave it to veteran expat western author Dean Barrett to put a new twist on Asia-based fiction. His latest novel. A Love Story: The China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley (2013, ISBN-13: 978-0-9788888-3-1) will make readers want to hold on to their hats (and scrotums) as protagonist Thomas Rowley, a western soldier in China, is captured and then enslaved by beautiful and powerful female Taiping soldiers. The story takes place during China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), where Rowley, serving in Frederick Townsend Ward’s mercenary army, becomes separated from his comrades. His female captors begin by publicly humiliating him, giving him to soldier Sweet Little Sister, who rides him as a horse, whips him, and makes him sleep with his fellow equines. Soon, Rowley becomes enamored of his slave keeper, and for the remainder of the story, remains devoted to her, dedicated to her every whim and fancy. Astute readers will recognize elements of the Stockholm syndrome at play here, and conjure up visions of Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel Venus in Furs. What makes this story compelling is that the love is requited, and when the female army rests in the Eden-like Peach Blossom Spring with forty pages remaining to be read, it occurs to the reader that the end of Rowley’s bliss cannot be far away.
Indeed, some of Barrett’s best writing here describes Peach Blossom Spring itself, a mythical paradise to which the author has alluded to in previous books. Here’s how he describes it in Rowley:
As we entered a narrow gorge, the clouds seemed to sweep with an almost unnatural speed across the sky and I heard the howl of rushing wind. The wind increased until I thought we might actually be blown to the side of the trail, but we must have entered a part of the gorge protected from the wind because the wind suddenly died.
At the sound of running water I turned my head. A sparkling spring meandered toward sheer, white-faced cliffs, a solid mountain wall which appeared precipitously steep and impassable. And yet we continued on in that direction. Soon the air was sweetened with an intoxicating fragrance. On both banks I saw peach trees ablaze with deep pink blossoms and beneath the trees a myriad of delicate pink and white blossoms had carpeted the banks of the stream. An eerie shaft of golden sunlight shot out from a well concealed opening in the cliff, bathing the women warriors in a deep yellow glow. Sweet Little Sister looked down at me from horseback and smiled. “We are here,” she said.
The women dismounted and led the horses through the narrow gorge. We emerged into a sunlit, bucolic land of villages and temples and farms and fields. Beyond intersecting dykes, mulberry trees and bamboo groves stretched to the horizon. I could see how prosperous the farms appeared especially compared to what I had seen during my captivity. We passed fertile fields of rice and cotton and beans and corn and almost every crop I could name.
Villagers espied us and abandoned their work to warmly greet the Taiping women whom they obviously had seen before. I noticed their clothes seemed to be of a fashion totally different from anything I had previously seen in China. Young men and women immediately helped unpack the horses and others took them off to be cared for. Several gathered cautiously about to stare at the long-nosed, ghostly white, foreign-devil.
In the distance I could glimpse the sun reflecting off of a series of small lakes and setting fire to the bells of a seven-story pagoda. The wind was gently ringing its bells and at its base peach blossoms carpeted much of the entrance area. In the distance I could hear someone playing a flute.
The book, though, is based on the psychological nuances of erotica, an oriental fantasy that kept us thinking of Sax Rohmer’s Dragon Lady operating within a sexually-charged environment that many of us adolescents no doubt dreamed about when we read those books as youths. But make no mistake, Barrett here takes it to very adult proportions in keeping with what one easily finds today in Bangkok, where the author lives. As such, the story essentially operates in two historically distant, yet sexually similar worlds. And there is justice: a large-breasted, prejudiced, and class-conscious western woman is brought to her knees as easily as Rowley, becoming the lover of her female subjugator, a sub-plot in which Barrett must have reveled as he wrote it.
Barrett’s written a number of books on Asian themes, both fiction and non-fiction. Clearly, this amalgam of erotica and history has been brewing some time before bubbling to the surface. We couldn’t put it down and neither, do we suspect, will you. Highly recommended. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.