Book Reviews

The Devil Comes Courting by Courtney Milan


Spoilery CW/TW within, be ye warned

Content warning: racism, harm caused by interracial adoption, colonialism, stolen children. Emotionally abusive family relationships.

I should know better by now than to start a Courtney Milan novel in the evening before I have to work in the morning. I renew my membership of the Bad Decisions Book Club every single time. The Devil Comes Courting was no exception to this rule.

Grayson Hunter wants to build a telegraph from Shanghai to the USA, but to do this he will need someone to invent a Chinese telegraphic code. He comes to Fuzhou seeking the Silver Fox, a man who has already invented a partial code for this purpose and whom he has been told will not object to working with a Black man. He is not expecting the Silver Fox to be a young, attractive Chinese woman whose mind is too full of experimental bustles and megalodons to remember little things like names.

Over the course of two hours, she showed me the bamboo bustle replacement she’d been trying to make. I got six minutes of megalodon facts. And she eviscerated Viguier’s telegraphic code proposal without even batting an eye.

I mean, obviously he is going to fall in love with her. I fell in love with her. What sort of person would fail to fall in love with someone who knows megalodon facts? But unfortunately he really does need her to invent that telegraphic code, so flirting with her is out of the question.

Megalodon facts aside, Amelia is a fascinating character. She has a brilliant, grasshopper mind, that leaps from topic to topic and is interested in everything. And yet she is deeply constrained by her upbringing. She has been taught by her adoptive mother that she needs to be quiet and ladylike, that when people treat her as lesser because of her race, she must win them over with kindness. She has survived one unsatisfying arranged marriage with a missionary and is on the verge of being pushed into a second, even less satisfying one. Grayson’s offer of employment is tantalising – an opportunity to use her mind and her skills in a way she has never been permitted to do before. The fact that this might make her unmarriageable is really not the disadvantage her adoptive mother thinks it is.

But exciting as it is, it is also a step into the unknown, away from the conventional future mapped out for her. Amelia has never been allowed to be herself, and the prospect is almost as frightening as it is appealing. As her adoptive mother has always said “When the devil comes courting, he offers you what you want.” And the Chinese telegraphic code is something Amelia really, really wants.

And who can blame her? Here is Grayson, in the role of tempter:

The world is going to grow in the shape of the wires we lay, and nobody is thinking about what that will look like. They don’t ask what it will mean if all we talk of is business and news from the wealthy and powerful….

Think of all the things that could be sent. ‘Clara had her baby.’ ‘ Come quickly. Papa is dying.’” His voice sounded like steel on that one. He turned, gesturing, looking her in the eye. “Or: ‘I love you.’

It’s a compelling, even revolutionary vision, and yet it’s a revolution that is largely invisible, because it is based not in war but in the power of economics and trade, tools that have traditionally been used to maintain capitalism and White supremacy. I love the way this project turns those tools against their masters.

For Amelia, the vision is more personal than that. She still dreams of finding her birth mother, or at least of finding out what happened to her, and she imagines how a telegraph might have made it possible for her mother to have found her again.

Grayson also has a particularly personal motive for building the telegraph line. He lost three brothers in the Civil War in America, and believes that his mother resents him for being the one who survived when her favourite son died. (Both Amelia and Grayson carry significant misconceptions about the nature of their respective parents’ love, as it turns out.) The telegraph was something the brothers had planned to build together, and he is determined to carry out their legacy. But also, laying the telegraph line gives him an excuse to be an ocean away from his family for a really long time. Grayson is still deeply mired in grief, though he doesn’t think of it that way. He does, however, believe himself to be incapable of happiness or really of any other emotions – or at least, undeserving of expressing them.

Grayson comes rather ambiguously recommended by Amelia’s brother, Leland:

Hunter […] is utterly ruthless in his dealings and has not one iota of mercy for those who oppose him. […] Hunter is not a good man, but he values what is valuable, and I’ve never known him to do anything to anyone without their full and willing consent.

And he is, indeed, manipulative. He reads Amelia like a book, sees the ways in which she is stifled, and he recognises the subtext beneath the questions she asks. But he is also absolutely honest in his dealings with her, and treats her feelings as if they matter. Is it really seduction if you are giving someone the thing they most need?

The relationship between Grayson and Amelia is an unusual one for a number of reasons. The book takes place over quite a long period – two years or so, I think – and during that time Amelia and Grayson spend very little time in the same place. While there is an instant connection and attraction between them, the telegraph takes priority. So instead they form a remarkably intimate and honest friendship, mediated by telegraphic codes, and founded on Grayson’s words to Amelia early in the story:

“Don’t say you are fine when you are not.”

The telegraphic messages are, for me, the heart of this book. In the early parts, the correspondence is ostensibly about the work Amelia is doing. She is left alone in Shanghai to invent the code, while Grayson lays cable across the Pacific ocean. Before leaving, Grayson writes Amelia a series of letters in numbered envelopes, each providing advice and feedback. Amelia can send him a telegraph message with a question, and he will send her back a number indicating which letter to open.

And those letters… honestly, they just melted me. Like Amelia, I internalised young that I wasn’t good enough. But each letter from Grayson is an expression of confidence and trust in Amelia’s abilities, a steady, strong hand held out, inviting Amelia to trust herself, to use her own judgment, to know herself capable. They are, in many ways, love letters, and the only two people who don’t recognise this are Grayson and Amelia. I adored watching Amelia grow into herself, and gain the confidence to be herself and to begin reconnecting with the culture that was stolen from her as a child.

Stolen is a heavy word, but I think it’s the only thing that fits here. Amelia was adopted at the age of six (adopted is a rather fraught word in this instance) by Mrs Acheson, a missionary who did her best to turn Amelia into a proper Englishwoman. Amelia was given a new name, and forced to speak English; in many ways, her entire self was erased, and she does not even remember the name given to her by her birth mother.

Mrs Acheson believes she is acting out of love, and her love for Amelia is real. Here she is when Amelia decides to accept Grayson’s job offer, against her advice:

“One minute,” her mother begged. “Please. You’ve made up your mind, and you won’t change it. Let me just wish you well and tell you that I love you. If things go badly, come home. You can always come home, no matter what happens, do you understand? There is nothing you could do, no choice you could make, nothing that would make me not welcome you. I knew you were mine from the moment I set eyes on you, and there is no power on this earth that would ever alter that. I love you.”

But it is possible to genuinely love someone while still causing them terrible harm. Mrs Acheson’s love for Amelia is tainted by White supremacy. She loves her daughter – but it never occurs to her to defend her from the racist comments of others, because that would be impolite. She wants what is best for Amelia – and so she lovingly explains, repeatedly, that Amelia can never hope for real acceptance or affection from others, because she is, for all her Western education, still Chinese.

“We must be honest with ourselves. You are Chinese. It is an obstacle. You will have to settle. I love you for who you are. That’s why I’m telling you this – and I’d appreciate it if you’d give me credit for delivering hard truths honestly.”

While Mrs Acheson is affectionate and loving to Amelia, her words and actions reflect a fundamental belief that Amelia is lesser. Her love allows no room for Amelia to be anything other than the dutiful, grateful, Westernised daughter.

It is a powerful portrait of the psychic violence done by colonisation. On a more individual level, it is also an intimately drawn portrait of emotional abuse, and the narrative does a painfully good job of showing both the genuineness of Mrs Acheson’s feelings and the harm that she is causing her adopted daughter. Mrs Acheson’s love for Amelia stands in stark contrast to Grayson’s. Grayson, from the very earliest moment of his acquaintance with Amelia, admires and values her; her mother only loves and pities her.

Getting back to Amelia and Grayson, I also loved that once Amelia begins to gain confidence in herself, she sees past Grayson’s confident and arrogant facade and begins to turn his own words and tools back on him. On one of the last separations of the book, she gives him a stack of envelopes containing words, objects and drawings designed to inspire delight and laughter, for Grayson to open on receipt of a number, or just when he is in need of contact. The erotic applications of pre-coded telegraphic messages are also not overlooked, and I did appreciate this take on sexting via telegraphy.

The Devil Comes Courting is not a short book, and there are so many things I loved about it that there is no space to write about here, or that are too spoilery for a review. But I can’t finish this review without mentioning my delight in the technical discussions about how to create a Chinese telegraphic code. I started learning Mandarin a couple of months ago, so I am probably exactly the target audience for these conversations right now! It was particularly fascinating for me to watch Amelia grappling with how to translate what is effectively a two-dimensional writing system into a one-dimensional code. Figuring out how to represent individual radicals (simpler characters which have their own meaning, but which are often combined to form more complex characters with a related meaning) and their arrangement using Morse Code is an immense challenge, and I loved how Amelia addressed it, even though my Mandarin isn’t good enough to fully picture the difficulties.

I loved this story. I loved the friendship between Grayson and Amelia, and I loved the way they supported each other and helped each other to become more themselves. I loved watching Amelia come into her own, and I especially loved watching her reconnect with her stolen culture and family. I loved Grayson’s charm and his delight in Amelia’s endlessly hungry mind, and I adored the fact that he’s honestly convinced that he is all hardened and manipulative and emotionless but he’s actually a total softie where Amelia is concerned. I adored the telegraphic code and all the stuff about laying cable across the Pacific, and that Amelia can’t think about Grayson laying cable without blushing. I loved the humour and the kindness shown to and by so many characters. And I loved the message which defined their relationship: “Don’t say you are fine when you’re not.”

The Devil Comes Courting is a far more dense and angsty book than, say, The Duke Who Didn’t, or indeed most of Milan’s prior work. But it is also a very joyful story. It is a book about the delight of discovery: of new things, of one’s own capabilities, of love, of things that were thought lost. It’s a book that addresses serious topics seriously, but it is also a book that sparkles.

I adored it.

 

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