The Pure Land

Written by Alan Spence
Review by Lucinda Byatt

Closely based on historical fact, this is the story of Thomas Glover, the young Aberdeen merchant who became known as the Scottish samurai, the man who bankrolled the rebellion leading to the deposition of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of Emperor Meiji. He first arrived in Nagasaki in 1859 as a very junior apprentice employed by the shipping company Jardine Matheson. Japan and nearby Shanghai offered rich pickings for men like Glover, his countryman Mackenzie, and the American Walsh, who were willing to take risks and who were not overly concerned about the morality of trading in opium and arms. Glover was not so lucky in his personal relations. One of the three geishas whom he loved – probably Maki – is thought to have inspired the libretto for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Occasionally, a deeper analysis of character is sacrificed to the fast-paced action of the novel, and to the analysis of clan feuds and alliances, but Spence offers a compelling account of how Japan moved from a feudal, pre-industrial society, dominated by the bakufu with its hierarchy of samurai and daimyos, into the 20th century in the space of forty years. Imbued with the contrasting values of Western capitalism and the Samurai code of honour, bushido, not to mention anecdotes from Zen Buddhism, this book has a haunting quality that remains long after you turn the last page.