The Painting

Written by Nina Schuyler
Review by Claire Morris

The Painting successfully twines together two very disparate worlds: Japan during the Meiji Restoration and Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1869, just outside Tokyo, the talented painter, Ayoshi, commits memories of her lover to watercolors as she battles the unhappiness of an arranged marriage to Hayashi, a ceramic artist who barely survived a childhood fire. In Paris, Jorgen, a Danish soldier who lost a leg fighting for France, finds employment unpacking imports. One day, he opens a box of Hayashi’s ceramics to discover one of Ayoshi’s paintings wrapped around a pot. Uncertain as to why the painting is in the box or who might have painted it, Jorgen plans to sell it for a profit. But the painting mesmerizes him in a way he can’t explain. Numbed by his experiences, he had spurned the friendship of Natalia, his employer’s sister, and now she has left for the battlefront. Meanwhile in Japan, Ayoshi’s world is irreversibly changed by an outlawed Buddhist monk, an old family friend, and the crumbling of tradition beneath an onslaught of Western influence.

This unusual novel succeeds because its characters come across as authentic and human. The worlds they live in are grim – starvation and the threat of defeat in France, government oppression and religious persecution in Japan – so obviously they cannot remain unaffected by outside events. But the author shows change deftly, plausibly, with the power of love as a backdrop. Despite its setting of war and destruction, The Painting provides hope for a future where life will go on.