Blossoms and Shadows
The arrival of the Western powers in Japan in the 1850s forced decades of simmering unrest into the open: a weak shogunate, the rivalries and ambitions of the powerful clans, and the frustrations of the samurai and merchant classes. Tsuru, a doctor’s daughter who longs to practise medicine herself, has dutifully accepted her role as a traditional wife. But when her clan, the Chôshû, take the lead in the rebellion against the shogun, Tsuru is drawn into the conflict and her life is radically changed.
I have myself researched and written about this confusing Japanese period, and I bow in admiration to Hearn’s achievement. Using medicine as the means, she guides us through the political and social complexities of the civil wars while at the same time, in Tsuru and others, she creates rounded, believable characters. The women, especially, are convincingly Japanese and not just Europeans or Americans dressed in kimonos as so often occurs in novels dealing with Japan. Descriptions of nature, weather and landscapes – as well as the little details of everyday life – add to the full flavour of Chôshû emerging from the Middle Ages.
There are problems. Difficult Japanese names fly thick and fast, too often of irrelevant figures we rarely or never meet, and that can become irritating. A map would be very useful. This is not a book for the beach, but it is a fascinating, frequently moving novel and a must-read for anyone interested in Japan.