The Office of Gardens and Ponds

Written by Didier Decoin
Review by Nicky Moxey

Set in Heian Japan, the book gives us two startlingly opposed worldviews – the imperial court is described in all its effete, rigid, exquisite beauty, and then we see something of the world of Miyuki, the carp-fisherman’s widow who is forced to interact with it. Miyuki’s adored husband was the provider of outstanding quality carp to the Imperial ponds, and when he dies in an accident, the whole village will suffer unless someone can fulfil the annual order from the Office of Gardens and Ponds. And who but Miyuki knows how to carry carp on a bamboo yoke across the shoulders and keep them alive and in pristine condition through all the long and hazardous journey? Against all odds, Miyuki makes it to the Palace, covered in muck, fish slime, and other unmentionables, in the only clothing she owns – smelling, shall we say, odd. And this personal odour turns out to be essential for a palace ritual, a suitably fantastical climax for the encounter…

Quite apart from the wonderful setting, Decoin (and his translator) has made Miyuki a most sympathetic character. Throughout, she looks back on her life with her husband and uses his tales of the similar journeys he has made, and the memory of their mutual love, to sustain her progress. Some of her memories are deliciously erotic; Miyuki is undeniably a person rooted in the flesh. A fascinating book, skillfully written. This is not my period, but the details of both worlds feel right; and in any case, the story holds up on its own.