Life’s varied hues
Priyanka Singh

The Painter of Shanghai
by Jennifer Cody Epstein.
Penguin. Pages 486. Rs 450.

JENNIFER Cody has worked as a journalist in Asia and her knowledge and grasp on its cultural psyche is immaculate. She has done the groundwork rather well, even though the narrative doesn’t quite hold up at places.

The book is based on the artist, Pan Yuliang, who rose from a life of deprivation and prostitution to being a non-conformist painter to reckon with. But it isn’t a holistic account of her life.

The author says that the book attempts to stay true to the broad strokes of Pan’s life (as depicted in the few sources available), but for the most part, the characters and situations “are like the paintings that inspired them—impressionistic portraits”.

When Pan Yuliang was a young girl of 14, she was sold off to a brothel owner by her opium-addicted uncle. Life assumes a different meaning altogether as she is forced to fall in line.

At such a tender age, she sees the loathsome side of womanhood and all the shame that could possibly come with it. She resigns to her fate, but in solitude, she continues to hone her embroidery skills that she had picked up from her mother. This would later help her switch to painting with enviable ease.

An honourable government inspector, Pan (she takes his name) Zanhua, is drawn to her mind and the fighter in her. He buys back her freedom and there is no looking back for her, even though the stigma doesn’t leave her.

From a woman with poor self-worth, Yuliang transforms into a fearless woman, ready to stand her ground and take on her critics even in extreme situations. She marries the much-married inspector and loves him in a strange way, but much against her resolve, falls for a young painter-turned-revolutionary who dies fighting for a cause.

She goes to an art school and creates a furore in art circles and the government’s culture wing in Shanghai with her nude paintings.

She sets aside the brush after her work is vandalised at an art gallery. With time, she drifts away from Zanhua, but the guilt is overbearing. She knows she must take up painting again and decides to leave her husband for his peace alone.

The book is gripping for its racy style in the earlier sections, but staggers as it advances. The fabric loosens and the author seems in a rush to wind up the book. The end is predictable, if not entirely melodramatic.