Pros: There are some lovely scenes and an unusual theme for the story.
Cons: Unless you're interested in sumo wrestling, skip it.
After reading Gail Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk, a novel set in China, I knew that she was a writer that I was going to be hunting up again for future reads. But now that I've finished The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, I'm not too certain any more.
Set in Japan during World War II and for nearly two decades afterwards, the novel tells the story of two families that are faced with deprivation, death and eventual survival. Yoshio and Fumiko Wada are raising their grandsons, Hiroshi and Kenji Matsuyama after their daughter and son-in-law have perished in a tragic accident. They adore the boys, giving them encouragement and a safe enviroment to grow up in. Hiroshi is strong and getting taller every day, already a budding wrestler that is dreaming of becoming a sumo champion. His brother, Kenji, is quieter and much more of an introvert. Kenji dreams of being an artist, and despite being bullied relentlessly at school, eventually finds sanctuary with a maker of masks for the Noh theatre, Akira Yoshiwara, an ancient art form that Kenji embraces with a passion.
But when the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor and war begins against the Americans, the Wadas find their life in Tokyo shattered. There are food shortages, the depredations of the kempeitai, the police force, as they confiscate everything of value, and finally, the terrible firebombings towards the end of the war. Hiroshi and Kenji along with their grandparents have survived, but at terrible costs, and they're not alone either.
The Tamadas, the father running a stable of sumo wrestlers, and the mother, a former geisha, have two daughters that they are raising. There was hope for a son, but both girls show great promise. Haru, the elder, is the 'good' daughter, dutiful, helping her mother run the household, and Aki, the younger, is a bundle of mischief, inheriting her mother's great beauty, but also not quite as focused as her sister. As with the Wadas, bit by bit, everything is stripped away, the wrestlers being taken by the army to serve in distant wars, food becoming ever more scarce, and when the firestorms come, eventual tragedy.
Tamada rebuilds his stable of wrestlers, seeing in Hiroshi the promise of not just being good but a great sumo champion. Hiroshi enters the training and otherworldly life of sumo, while Kenji goes on to university, becoming a scholar. As for Tanaka's daughters, both of them are taken with Hiroshi -- which girl will the sumo wrestler choose? And what does fate have in store for the families who have survived such terrible times?
I have to say, I really wanted to like this novel. I love reading about other cultures and times, and anytime I get a chance to learn something new, I leap at it. Tsukiyama gives a great deal to the feel of this novel, using Japanese terms and expressions to great effect, and able to convey meaning without going into too much of an explain mode. That's the good part, along with some bits of very vivid description.
And therein lays the problem with this novel. It's all delivered up in bits. Chapters are not much more than several paragraphs at a time, giving tiny little vignettes into the lives of these characters. Too, the writing style and language is very simplistic, without any real poetry to the words, nothing that is evocative or lyrical in the story. Only very briefly does anything really shine through, and there's a lot of wading through very bleak prose to get there. Another failing are the characters, all of whom are either very good, or very bad, and almost no one in a grey area. This too, makes for dull reading.
Hiroshi, while he does have flashes of normal human behavior, is a stoic man, enduring setbacks and tragedies without a flicker it seems of emotion. Aki is the stereotypical beautiful butterfly of a girl without a lick of sense or backbone to her. Kenji is the sensitive artist who withdraws into his own world. Haru is the perpetual disappointed woman, who keeps hoping that the man she loves will notice her.
And this is where the novel truly flops. It seems that almost every novel that I've read lately about Japan has geisha in it, and once again, we have geisha portrayed as near prostitutes, seducing their clients. For heaven's sake, the Geisha of Kyoto and Tokyo are not selling sex, and while westerners keep perpetuating this myth, it gets very annoying to have to read this take over and over and over again. If you want to find out what geisha are -- and more importantly, are not, seek out the books on the topic by Liza Dalby -- they are a real eye-opener.
Along with the story, there are several additional features in this. There's an interview and essay with the author, and questions for reading groups to discuss.
Will I bother to read more of Gail Tsukiyama's novels after this? Probably -- Women of the Silk was a beautiful novel to read about a world that I knew nearly nothing about. But Street of a Thousand Blossoms failed miserably for me; I found it to be just another novel, the characters too unfocused and overwhelming in numbers, the writing style too choppy to flow well, and the plot and twists too contrived to feel natural.
That's just too bad, as the author can do better than this.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
2007; Griffin/St. Martin's Press