The Gage Street Courtesan

Written by Christopher New
Review by Lynn Guest

Under a layer of Victorian respectability, colonial Hong Kong was a seething hodgepodge of failed revolutionaries, crooks, opium dealers, Jewish refugees, pimps and prostitutes. Franziska Goldman, an opera singer, has been forced by bad luck to live as a courtesan, albeit Hong Kong’s most successful one. She longs to escape this tawdry existence and to flee with her feckless, Austrian anarchist lover, but debts tie her. A carriage accident introduces her to Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s visiting son and a keen amateur composer, who, unaware of her present profession, invites Franziska to sing his new work at a public concert. Might this Royal command mean renewed respectability and a resumption of her true career? But it may be that it is the denizens of her demimonde who are involved with Franziska who will decide her future.

If she is the appealing heroine of the novel, Hong Kong is the hero, and New does the colony proud. He is a long-time resident, and his beautifully written, detailed descriptions of the streets and slums and the population, high and low, bring the city to vibrant life. The lives of five very different characters, Chinese, European and British, all well drawn, interact with Franziska’s.  New weaves their stories through the 48 hours of the action before tying the threads together. This technique, expertly accomplished, gives the novel an added richness.