'The Red Chamber' by Pauline Chen

It’s hard to know quite where to start when reviewing such an epic story as this, which takes place over several years. Perhaps I’ve made it harder for myself by first reading the classic novel it was based on so that I could give it a fair trial, but reading A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin first has definitely given this modern retelling an extra dimension that makes me love both books even more.

Usually, I recoil at the idea of a reworking of a classic novel, especially if I’ve loved the original for years. Seeing that Jane Eyre had been rewritten as Jane Eyre Laid Bare to jump on the erotica bandwagon made me cringe. So what made this so different? First of all, I hadn’t read A Dream of Red Mansions, so I had no reason to mistrust a rewrite in the same way. Also, it wasn’t erotica. The whole point of Jane Eyre is that Jane is virtuous and chaste and all that’s good. Making the story erotic turns it completely upside down and ruins the point that, possibly, Charlotte Brontë was trying to make. It could also be seen as fan fiction, to which, as anyone who knows will tell you, I have a deep-seated aversion. But for some reason, I didn’t see this in the same way at all. I lap up books set in China, written by Chinese writers, or writers of Chinese descent. So on seeing this one, I knew instantly I had to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

Far from murdering Cao Xueqin’s wonderfully written semi-autobiographical novel, Pauline Chen has taken the original story to bits, subjected the main characters to intense scrutiny, then imagined how the story might have turned out differently before putting it all back together again. The characters she’s used are mostly the same, though she has pared it down to make it more manageable to modern readers, but she has fleshed them out more. Lady Jia, in the original book (I read an abridged version), is your typical Chinese matriarch in a noble household, seemingly a nice person but someone even her own son is afraid to contradict in any way. In The Red Chamber, she is a formidable woman, perfectly unlikeable, made more explicit here perhaps because otherwise 21st-century readers may not understand how things were in the 18th century, when the original book was written. Wang Xifeng, by turns compassionate and scheming and conniving in the original, has been given an added human side - we find out why she did what she did, what her motives were - and in this version of the story, I sympathised with her and liked her very much. Lin Daiyu, the first character we meet in The Red Chamber, is also fleshed out more. In the original novel, we don’t see her humble home in Suzhou, as she arrives at the Jia household having lost her mother to consumption. In The Red Chamber, we see how she tries desperately to make her father let her stay with him, before realising how determined he is to send her to her mother’s family in the capital, and we see how alien the noble way of life is to her, and how uncomfortable she feels.

Xue Baochai, Daiyu’s cousin, has a similar fate in both versions of the story, but the reasons have been altered and those reasons, indeed, give Pauline Chen room for a couple of sex scenes. These are not overwritten like so many cringe-worthy sex scenes, and they are examples of perfectly beautiful writing, adding an important extra element to the story.

The three women - Daiyu, Xifeng and Baochai - are all interlinked by family and fate, described as like being caught up in a web, and each movement one person makes ripples down the threads to be felt by everyone else in the household. No one living in such a mansion was ever truly free to make their own decisions and Pauline Chen has explored some of the possible consequences of doing exactly that. Affairs, usury, jealousy, political scandal… all are here, as they were in the original. The main thing that’s missing from this version is the eponymous Dream of Red Mansions (or the Red Chamber, depending on which translation you read), a symbolic dream experienced by Jia Baoyu on which all the events in the novel are based. But of course, this book’s title omits the Dream, and the original ending, so full of mysticism and spirituality, is also changed - but, on reflection, they are very similar, it’s just that the spirituality has been dealt with in a different way.

The epilogue was a nice surprise. It concerns Daiyu and her fate, thus ending the novel with the same character with which it began. The original ending was lost, as Cao Xueqin died at the age of 28, before he had a chance to finish his novel, so it was completed by someone else, and we will never know how Cao intended to end the story. The ending of The Red Chamber rounds things off nicely in a way that is intensely satisfying.

Pauline Chen has done a magnificent job of retelling an already powerful story, making it easier for modern readers to digest. As a writer, there were a few little niggles that I would have taken a red pen to, but they were very minor, and ultimately forgivable in a book I was already so in love with that it really didn’t matter. This is a beautiful book that I would not hesitate to recommend.