cover image An Empire of Women

An Empire of Women

Karen Shepard. Putnam Adult, $24.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14667-1

A celebrated 75-year-old photographer returns to the scene where she created her most famous images, and faces the complexities of her family relationships in Shepard's powerfully suggestive debut. Of French-Chinese extraction, Celine Arneaux is known for her daring and morally questionable portraits of her Japanese-American granddaughter, Cameron, when the girl was a child and lived with her as her muse. Now Cameron is 25, and Celine's work is to be the subject of a retrospective article in Apertures magazine, so the two women return to the Virginia cabin that was the setting of the original photos. The publicity event turns into a personal sojourn for the artist, the model and the woman between them: Sumin, Celine's Asian-American daughter and Cameron's mother. Sumin has tagged along for the week, though her relationship with both Celine and Cameron is embattled. Her journalist boyfriend, Grady Baxter, is researching Celine's background for the article and uncovers some unpleasantness that the photographer doesn't wish to confront, among them questions about her mother's death in 1967 Communist China. Also present is Alice, a six-year-old Chinese girl whose guardianship Cameron undertook when Alice's mother had to return to her homeland. The girl becomes the focus of all three women, each of whom has complicated feelings about her mixed ethnicities and identities as a mother and/or daughter. Competing for Alice's affections, each seeks to fill some lack in her own life. Although virtually no action transpires, the emotional landscapes are mapped masterfully: the tension among the women snaps with memorably acerbic dialogue, and the emotional light and shadow are portrayed with an unflinching eye. Plainspoken and direct, yet rich in complexities, the story (reminiscent of Kathryn Harrison's Exposure) raises a host of compelling questions about heritage and family, and more than a few about contemporary art. (Sept.) FYI: Shepard is the granddaughter of Chinese novelist Han Suyin and is married to writer Jim Shepard.