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Themes and Threads in Anchee Min's 'Empress Orchid'
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Anchee Min's "Empress Orchid" (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)
"God is in the details." —Mies van der Rohe

Anchee Min's new novel, "Empress Orchid," is a wordsmith's treasury of unique phrases, economical dialogue, and rich imagery. The descriptions are vivid, the characters are complicated, and the dialogue has impact. She accomplishes this richness in part through her detailed sentence and word choices. Her ability to say what needs to be said in a clear and non-gratuitous way, but yet, with her own savage poetry.

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Image Anchee Min

Consider the rich imagery: "My imperial life began with a smell."

Or the ornate description, laden with subplot: "His diadem was crowned by a large Manchurian pearl, and it had a silver inlay of trapped ribbons and tassels."

Or the economical dialogue:

"Will we be lovers?" I asked. "No." his voice was faint but not weak.

These sentences shine. And what makes them shine is that they work on many levels. Besides being pleasing to the ear, they inform. And they inform on separate planes. There is direct and indirect information.

Directly, the first sentence tells us how Empress Orchid's imperial life began, but the fact that Min chose to use an olfactory sense to connect that beginning casts the sentence in shadow. The promising words "imperial," "life," and "began," are utterly negated by the word "smell." (Note it is delightfully unadorned with adjective.)

When we refer to something "smelling," it is usually an unpleasant situation -— and in this (not so) simple beginning sentence -— we know that whatever story is about to unfold will have two faces. The glimmering surface and the murky bottom. We, as the reader, are forewarned and foreshadowed.

The second sentence also seems perhaps like a well words bit of description, but Min does not let the chance go by to sew in a little subplot. While she's eloquently describing the diadem, she throws in the lovely counterbalance word "trapped." Like Orchid, these lovely ribbons and tassels are "trapped" in a larger construct, just the way she is. This is not an accident, coincidence or lucky break, this is a fine writer choosing her words like a surgeon chooses a scalpel.

Of course the last sentences, the dialogue, represents Min's ability to achieve much with few words. His voice was faint, (tender) but not weak (resolute). In that simple exchange we learn so much about Orchid's interior, as well as the man she loves. Simple. Complex. The sum is greater than the parts. They will not be lovers. The dialogue conveys their history as well as their future.

In every sentence Min conveys the essential DNA of the story. All sentences, metaphors and similes illuminate the main themes of the book. Decay beneath gilding, power beneath weakness, weakness beneath power.

Min uncovers the human condition, while delivering the facts by showing us that a good sentence is smooth delivery of complex ideology and poetry. Just like Orchid, just like Anchee Min, and just like this very fine novel.

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