THE PURE LAND by Alan Spence


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Fictionalized biography of the young adventurer-turned-businessman who helped shape modern Japan and may have inspired Madame Butterfly.

Scottish writer Spence’s fourth work of fiction (Way To Go, 2004, etc.) is a muscular historical novel focusing on one man’s contribution to Western traders’ penetration of the hostile East. Aberdeen-based Thomas Glover’s youthful appetite for risk and opportunity is given full scope when he lands a job in Japan in 1859, working for traders Jardine, Mathieson & Co. Ambitious, hardworking and instinctively entrepreneurial, Glover soon has his own import/export business in Nagasaki, trading tea, silk, gold and anything else he thinks will turn a profit, including weapons. He disregards advice from the studiously neutral British not to get involved in local politics, supporting the Choshu clan that eventually leads rebel forces to overthrow the shogun and propel Japan into modernity. Female characters feature little and sadly in this story. Glover leaves behind an early romance and a son in Scotland; his first Japanese marriage fails when a premature child dies; another Japanese love, Maki, brings up his son Tomisaburo alone, thinking Glover is back in Europe. By the time the misunderstanding is cleared up, he has a new wife and a young daughter, but offers to take in Tomisaburo and give him a better life. Maki hands over her son, then throws herself into the river. Glover loses one fortune but moves to Tokyo and makes another; he dies in 1911, by which time Japan is becoming industrialized. Tomisaburo lives to see the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

A colorful, empathetic, melancholy-tinged portrait of a Victorian colossus.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-84195-882-8
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Canongate
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2007