The Mask Carver’s Son

Written by Alyson Richman
Review by Waheed Rabbani

Set during the late 1800s in Japan and in France, this novel is a portrait of two artists, Kiyoki and his father, Ryusei. In Kyoto, Ryusei’s parents tragically die after eating poisonous plums he had picked. He atones by cutting down the tree and becoming a skilled mask carver in the ancient Noh tradition. His masks impress the patriarch of the Kanze theatre. Ryusei sells his masks and also marries the patriarch’s daughter, Etsuko. Although Etsuko dies giving birth to Kiyoki, he is gifted with his mother’s painting talent. Kiyoki develops his drawing abilities in secret from his authoritarian father. Japan is in a period of slow transformation during the Meiji reforms, and Kiyoki becomes infatuated by Western-style paintings, particularly those by French Impressionists. He gains admission and a scholarship to study at a prestigious art school and departs for Tokyo, which distresses his father.

Kiyoki comes of age in Tokyo and becomes attracted to a fellow male student, Noboru. He thinks of Noboru as: “someone Michelangelo would have begged to study.” Their gay encounters are narrated just as delicately as their paintings. Kiyoki’s inheritance enables him to fulfill his dream of studying in Paris. However, Noboru is unable to accompany him. In Paris, Kiyoki concentrates on honing his craft but thinks and dreams often of Noboru.

Using Kiyoki’s first-person voice, Alyson Richman has narrated the Japanese and French cultural and historical period details superbly. The toils of the artists are depicted vividly, and the descriptions of the wood-carving, masks, museums, theatres, and paintings are all informative. The slight digression into the back story of secondary characters makes us wish to know more of Kiyoki’s life in France, particularly his second visit there. The ending drags somewhat; nevertheless, the storyline keeps us engrossed to the unpredictable conclusion.