Karen Shepard’s An Empire of Women by Amy Hempel

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 73 Fall 2000
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Karen Shepard

Karen Shepard. Photo by Jim Shepard. Courtesy of Putnam.

Collaboration, conspiracy, competition, claustrophobia—so begins a weeklong reunion for a mother, daughter, granddaughter, and a child who has been entrusted to their care in Karen Shepard’s first novel, An Empire of Women. The grandmother, Celine Arnaux, is a Chinese-French photographer whose fame derives largely from portraits she made of her granddaughter Cameron as a child, photos so intimate and provocative (think Sally Mann) that Cameron will tell Celine during this charged week, “The first time I felt a man put his fingers inside of me it was like watching someone look through one of our books.”

Between the two of them is Sumin, the daughter Celine overlooked both maternally and as a subject for her art. The reunion is contrived for journalistic purposes; Sumin’s paramour is along to document the return to the cabin in Virginia where, years before, the famous photos of Cameron were made. Shepard, herself the granddaughter of the famous Chinese author Han Suyin (Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing), is good at evoking the highly self-conscious atmosphere of such an enterprise, contrasting the genuine impulses of the past with the opportunistic business of the present.

China’s Cultural Revolution is the referent that amplifies the story and implicates Celine in a terrible act that involves her own mother. Shepard has done her research, and successfully personalizes history. But the test of a compelling artist, it seems, is in the rendering of dailiness. Here Shepard excels, with lovely moments of linkage between cultures, as when Celine observes a walkway outside their cabin: “The wet flagstone path approximated the jade called Light in Darkness from which chieftains had goblets made. It was said to change color in contact with poison.”

Early on, Shepard dryly describes the expression of a young woman listening to her mother as “Tell me something I don’t know.” She goes on to show us what happens when a mother does just that.

—Amy Hempel

 

An Empire of Women was just published by Putnam Publishing Group.

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