The Commoner

Written by John Burnham Schwartz
Review by India Edghill

In 1959, lovely young Haruko becomes the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family when she weds the young crown prince. This elegantly written novel chronicles her increasingly restricted life as a royal wife and brood mare, a soul-killing existence that eventually results in Haruko literally losing her voice. She eventually recovers the ability to speak, but never the ability to act for herself. Later, as Empress, she even persuades dedicated career-woman Reiko to marry her son, trapping another talented, spirited commoner in the stranglehold of the imperial household. Not until many years later does Haruko find the courage to act for herself, and free her daughter-in-law and granddaughter from the luxurious, stifling prison of imperial life.

Although The Commoner is a thought-provoking and compelling read, since the time period runs from 1959 to the present, and since it’s written in a very personal voice by Haruko and lacks much outside detail, it really doesn’t read like a historical novel. As a picture of an almost invisible world, however, it’s fascinating. The author has done immense research into the Japanese imperial family and its life; from the notes, apparently changing the names of the major characters is the main fictionalization in this intriguing look behind palace walls.