The Scent of Sake
Lebra’s debut is a biographical novel of Rie, the sole heir of the House of Omura, a sake-brewing family in 19th-century Japan. Although Rie shows signs of being a shrewd businesswoman, she is not allowed to enter the brewery, which means that her future husband will assume sole responsibility for the future of the family business. When Rie is betrothed to Jihei against her wishes, her mother tells her that the basis of a successful marriage is to ”kill the self” and let go of her own needs and desires in favor of those of her husband. Unfortunately for Rie, her husband is a heavy drinker who does not intend to give up his relationship with O-Toki, a geisha. Though Rie is under pressure to produce an heir, Jihei’s attention is focused on O-Toki, and she soon finds herself caring for her husband’s son with his lover. Though Jihei is outwardly in charge of the House of Omura, Rie is the brains behind the operation, making important, and often risky, business decisions. The dynasty that she continues, both with her own children and those born to Jihei’s lovers, is formidable.
Rie’s fight to keep her ”self” alive despite societal pressures to submit to her husband makes for an engaging read. There’s enough discussion of business to set a realistic stage for the action of the novel, but Lebra doesn’t get bogged down in technical details of the sake-brewing process. The politics of the era, both at the local and national level, are mentioned, but the focus of the novel remains steadily on Rie and her place in the family business. While the narrative is easy to follow, some of the abrupt shifts forward several years in time can be disorienting, and the large number of characters, many with similar names, take a while to sort out. Overall, an enjoyable novel for readers who appreciate stories of women’s lives and struggles.