Japan welcomes the West in this historical tale from a first-time novelist.
In 1865, Aurelia Bernard was a little girl living with her mother and her uncle, a Catholic priest, in New York. By 1866, she was an orphan, working as a servant for the Shin family in Kyoto. The head of the Shin household—a large, impressive old man Aurelia refers to as “the Mountain”—is a master of the tea ceremony. When the novel begins, the Mountain enjoys the high status and state-subsidized income of an artist. But Aurelia’s story encompasses the Meiji period, when Japan was opened to Westerners and their modern ideas and technologies, and when indigenous phenomena like the tea ceremony—as well as its practitioners—continued to exist only by adapting to a strange new reality. This is not, however, the type of sweeping historical fiction that musters a cast of thousands. It is, instead, a record of one family’s fortunes during a tumultuous time. The central character is not Urako—the name Aurelia receives from her new family—but Yukako, the Mountain’s daughter. She’s a compelling character, and Urako is an observant and generally eloquent chronicler. Readers who enjoy historical fiction for the exotic details will appreciate her depictions of women with blackened teeth, the care and maintenance of kimono and, of course, the intricacies of the tea ceremony. But Urako is, perhaps, a little too faithful to the history she’s describing. Few events, it seems, are beneath her notice, and neither the narrator nor the author seems willing to distinguish interesting incidents from tedious bits of exposition. When the politics of the Meiji Restoration impoverish the Shin family, the Mountain’s mother makes several trips to the pawn shop, while Yukako embarks on some rather bold and innovative entrepreneurial endeavors; the latter are much more exciting than the former, but both receive much the same narrative attention. Avery writes with a self-assured lyricism—her poetic images are often quite arresting, and only occasionally florid or clichéd—but this doesn’t entirely offset the glacial pace of the story.
A confident, original but slightly wearying debut.