‘There was no evidence or early trace of my penchant for the young, the tender, or the ghostly,” insists Pickens, the narrator of “My Last Empress,” the exotic new novel by Da Chen. Son of an upright New England lawyer, educated at Andover and Yale, Pickens is now “old, decayed, and fermented” and writing his memoir. “From my trembling hand bleeds forth the passion that I thought had died all those years ago,” he writes. “Yet still, I am forever burning, forever wanting.”
Pickens’s abiding passion is for Annabelle Hawthorn, a missionary’s daughter who was raised in China. When the two meet at Andover, Annabelle is an enchanting, exotic, bamboo-flute-playing teenage beauty. Their ardor ignites, literally: Annabelle dies in a fire lighted by the opium pipe she’d brought to their first tryst. The distraught Pickens becomes obsessed. “I made love to Annabelle’s ghost every night,” he writes. “Annabelle reigned over me. . . . She was formless, airlike, ubiquitous, and pervasive.” In fact, as we discover, the ghost of Annabelle will haunt him and lure him to his shocking fate.
As Pickens recovers from the incendiary trauma, he goes to Yale, where he becomes the favorite student of a famous Orientalist. “Soon,” Pickens says, “Annabelle’s Peking shanghaied my Yale.” Signing up for service as a missionary the year he graduates, he travels to China. The Imperial Palace of the late 19th century is a snake pit of perfidious eunuchs, treacherous concubines and devious warlords, but Pickens is willing to risk everything to be close to Annabelle’s spirit. He is appointed tutor to the effete teenage emperor of the Qing dynasty, “a fine-boned, thin-framed creature.”
Pickens meets the emperor’s fourth and favored empress, Qiu Rong, a child bride who resembles his dearly departed Annabelle. “Oh my Annie in blood and flesh!” he cries at his first sight of her. “She blew a kiss, forming her meaty lips round and then parting them wide on an airy smack that bared her whitened teeth and tip of serpentine tongue.”
Aware of his tutor’s interest in Qiu Rong, the perverse emperor commands Pickens to “sit behind there and watch” while the young ruler attempts to make love to her. But his impotence leads Qiu Rong to Pickens’s bed. Now amorously allied, the tutor and the empress attempt to discover the secrets of her ancestry only to be threatened, thwarted and manipulated at every turn. The tale twists and darkens into depravity and sexual brutality, but it also includes great tenderness, grace and poetry.
Spirits are everywhere in the Imperial Palace. While danger and drama accelerate into a whirlwind of events, Da Chen never loses control of this complex story. In turns intoxicating, repellent, mystical and demonic, the novel challenges, provokes and surprises the reader with its shifting mood. “My Last Empress” will take you on an astonishing journey.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and the creator of the Verbier Vlog and the Tanglewood Vlog on MusicalAmerica.com
MY LAST EMPRESS
By Da Chen
Crown. 288 pp. $25