The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

Written by Karen Kao
Review by Jasmina Svenne

When Song Anyi is orphaned, she decides not to wait for her uncle to fetch her and sets out on the long journey to Shanghai. But a brutal attack when she is almost within sight of her destination leaves Anyi physically, emotionally, and mentally scarred. Her self-indulgent cousin Cho and upright brother Kang both want to save her from the demons that torment her, but Anyi is determined to make her own decisions in life, even if they lead to self-destruction.

This novel is set in 1937, as China teeters on the brink of war with Japan, but political events take a backseat in this very personal story of fatally flawed characters. Anyi and Cho can both be frustrating protagonists, trapped like real-life addicts in destructive patterns of behaviour, but this is precisely what makes them so real. Their redeeming qualities—Cho’s devotion to his cousin, Anyi’s intelligence and sense of humour—mean that a grain of sympathy is retained for them, even when their behaviour is at its worst.

The secondary characters are equally complex, many of them eager to help but lacking insight into the self-loathing that underpins everything Anyi does. I thought it was clever of Kao to leave it to the reader to decide whether the ghosts Anyi sees are real, symptoms of mental illness, or even the side-effects of the drugs she takes. This is quite a dark and disturbing novel, dealing with opium addiction, self-harm, prostitution and the ongoing psychological legacy of rape. There is a fair amount of violence, much of it kept off-stage, but those scenes that are included all advance the plot towards its dramatic conclusion. Not a light read, but a story I will go on thinking about for a good while.