The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai

Written by Barbara Lazar
Review by Sarah Johnson

There’s nothing like fiction set in 12th-century Buddhist Japan to shake up one’s notions about feminine strength and bravery. Kozaishō, the narrator for Lazar’s well-researched epic, is an uncommon heroine who has little freedom and few choices but whose powerlessness increases her resolve. Born the fifth daughter to rural peasants, she is just a child when her impoverished father trades her away for more land. Even then, she knows her responsibility to honor her family. The novel’s strongest attribute is its adherence to period values; it immerses readers in a foreign culture in which respect, dignity, and obedience are paramount. These aren’t always easy concepts for Western readers to grasp, but as Kozaishō pointedly states, “Submission is not surrender.”

Although she is quite young for a good part of the book, this is definitely an adult story, one with intensely rendered scenes of elegance and cruelty. It also defies expectations in another way. Kozaishō’s early rivalry with an older girl looks to move into Memoirs of a Geisha territory, but this doesn’t last very long. Tashiko becomes her best friend and more as they train as dancers at a remote shōen (estate) and later become Women-for-Play – prostitutes – under a brutal mistress’s supervision.

Thanks to favorable omens, Kozaishō gets tutored in the samurai arts, and she also becomes a talented storyteller whose pillow-talk to powerful clients reaps influential benefits. Her poems and stories, included in the text, lend it an authentic feel. Kozaishō’s voice has a compelling intimacy, but as her universe widens, and she learns more about the Taira and Minamoto clan wars, it sometimes gets lost amid the larger political picture.

With her debut novel, Lazar creates a striking portrait of an unfamiliar time, and of a valiant woman determined to avenge a terrible wrong and overcome the odds stacked against her.