‘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.