The gifted daughter of a 19th-century Japanese artist chafes at her society’s restrictions on women.
Based on exhaustive research into the life of famed painter and printmaker Hokusai, this novel postulates that much of his work, particularly in his dotage, was actually that of his daughter and chief protégée, Oei. Born in 1800 in Edo (now Tokyo), Oei is her father’s favorite, and his only child displaying a talent for drawing equal to his own. Oei follows her father to the Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district of Edo, where he sketches the courtesans. Among these is Shino, a noblewoman sold into prostitution as punishment for some unknown transgression. Shino becomes Hokusai’s mistress and teaches the young Oei manners and martial arts. After Shino marries, Hokusai and Oei travel throughout Japan and Hokusai becomes obsessed with the sea, which will be the subject of his best-known masterpiece, Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Never considered pretty (her prominent jaw earns her the nickname Ago-Ago, or chin-chin), Oei attracts lovers with her wit and talent and charms a Dutch art connoisseur. A brief marriage ends in divorce because Oei eschews housework and smokes and drinks sake like a man. For Hokusai, family exists only to serve his art. After his other children (and wives) either flee or die, Oei becomes her father’s sole partner and caregiver. Their fortunes wax and wane with the vagaries of artistic fashion, not to mention the caprices of the ruling Shogun and his censors. Among their bestselling products are Beauties, scrolls depicting life among the courtesans, and shunga—pornography. As Hokusai ages (his life-span extends to an unheard-of, for that period, 90), he suffers from palsy, and Oei acts as his ghost-painter. While symbiotically joined to her father, Oei wonders if, after helping to prolong her father’s life, she will ever have her own.
Although her story is hamstrung by an episodic and gangly narrative structure, Oei’s quandary will resonate with female artists today.