Pros: Interesting premise.
Cons: This novel goes nowhere, and does nothing.
I had read two of Gail Tsukiyama's previous novels, and I had enjoyed them to a certain extent. I felt that it would be good to take on a third one, and finally settle my doubts if this was an author that I wanted to stay with or not. With reading The Samurai's Garden, I finally had the answer that I was looking for.
Told in a first person voice, we follow Stephen, a young artist who is trying to complete his studies in Canton, China. However, his own ill-health and the invasion of the Japanese in the north has put him in a difficult situation. To aid his recovery, Stephen is sent off to Japan, to the home of his grandfather in a distant fishing village, Tarumi, where it is hoped that the clear sea air will help him regain his strength. Too, there's also the undercurrents of his own family's tension to consider, what with his mother being Chinese, and his father Japanese, and feeling alienated from them both.
The village is a small one, the house kept in order by Matsu, a stoic, quiet man who takes care of Stephen, but who also reveals nothing of himself. When he isn't busy, Matsu is in the garden, fussing over and tending to the plants in the exquisitely cared for plantings. At first, Stephen has almost no contact with anyone else, but going on a morning swim on a rocky beach, he spots two young girls, who are just as shy as he is. For a time, Matsu and Stephen are isolated, the only contact being letters from Stephen's family, and the magazines and radio that bring news of Japan's onward invasion of China and endless propoganda.
But it does turn out that Matsu's life isn't quite so self-contained. In the local village, there is his friend, Kenzo, who owns a teahouse, and in the nearby mountains, a village called Yamaguchi. In Yamaguchi live lepers, victims of a terrible disease, and one of them is Sachi, a woman who once had great beauty, until leprosy took her younger sister. Gradually, Stephen discovers her story, and Matsu's, and all of the other dramas in the village, while in the outside world, the world is lurching towards war...
This was a rather short novel, under two hundred pages, and I was easily through it in two evenings. The writing was decent, and while I had hoped to find some connection with the narrator, what with his artistry and coping with a chronic illness, but just the opposite happened. While there were times when he caught my interest, there was so little about him that I did like. He simply drifts through the novel, already a ghost, saying not very much and contributing little to the narrative, or even going through motions. Everyone in this one is stoic and suffering, and there isn't a flicker of emotion in any of them. Rarely do we see anything beyond the masks that they are wearing, and while I could certainly feel compassion for all of them, the author gives them all little motivation to change.
Which is unfortunate. Each one of the characters are existing in their own prisons, and each one could leave them at any moment. Only at the end, does Stephen move on, but there isn't any resolution either.
By the end of the novel I was very annoyed, and rather irritated by the fact that I had wasted time with this. It's simply a novel that has no plot, very little action, and just serves as a frame to hang some views of a Japanese village just before World War II. What I found most odd was the character of Stephen himself, being so blatantly Chinese in the middle of a Japan that was fiercely isolationist and bigoted at the time.
Too, there's an overemphasis on suicide in this one, with the old Japanese cliche of family honour can only be solved by suicide being trotted out again, and well, it just seems hackneyed at this point. The various means of death, or trying to commit suicide, are given as much detail and loving attention as another novelist might give to a first kiss between a pair of lovers.
I'm glad that I gave Ms. Tsukiyama another chance, but I'm rather sad that I had picked this one. While others might like this one, those that require a bit more complexity to their novels might find themselves in the same situation that I had. Overall, this one gets two stars, and a not-recommended from me. Considering that there are very few novels set in Asia that make it to the American market, it's rather sad that a novel like this is published than something more worthy of the time and expense.
Other Gail Tsukiyama novels that I've reviewed:
Street of a Thousand Blossoms
The Samurai's Garden
1994; St. Martin's Press