If the power of the historical novel is to carry the reader into the middle of an unknown world, Kabuki Boy is a triumph. Perle Besserman’s intensive, immersive research has produced a riveting picture of feudal Japan, delivered as the personal experience of real people. The Tokogawa Shogunate was a wild time of peasant uprisings and battling samurai, and Besserman’s tale expands over all of that. But the most moving and fascinating scenes occur in the “floating world,” the evanescent day-to-day life on the streets, of witty drunkards and doomed courtesans and kabuki and gossip and crime.
The hero of the novel is Myo, a boy who rises from rural poverty to be a star of the kabuki stage, playing women’s roles. This area of the novel reminds one sharply of Genji – the manners, the frivolity and the religious rituals – but Kabuki Boy has a social conscience, and pushes into darker, grimmer places, as the Shogunate begins to crumble into constant class warfare.
The research and the writing of this book are impressive. As a story it has problems, though. Myo rules the first half of the book, perfect in voice and sensibility, but Myo dies halfway through. The novel never really recovers from this loss. The second half, well-written as it is, and the wispy frame story never reach that same intensity. Nonetheless, as a window into 1800s Japan, the book is very worth reading.