The Storyteller and His Three Daughters

Written by Lian Hearn
Review by Bronwen Jones

Akabane Sei IX is an aging storyteller in the traditional rakugo style of mostly woolly yarns. To his horror, he has hit a dry patch. His world is changing too fast, and two of his daughters have left their husbands and returned home. In the chaos, his mind begins to thrum with new stories, and he is at the centre of the most intriguing and perilous story of all.

It is Tokyo of 1884, a time of social, economic and political uncertainty. Western influences are causing Akabane-sensei further angst as he must compete with a popular young rival, an Englishman from Yokohama.

In this wonderful snatch of dialogue (all the dialogue is written in play-script style), the sensei’s no-nonsense wife gives him a drubbing about the talented and handsome Jack Green.

“Tae: You’ve been to see the Englishman? Isn’t he every bit as good as I told you? Is that why you are so quiet and grumpy?

Sei: I hope I am not that mean spirited!

Tae: But you have to admit he’s good!

Sei: Yes, he is very good.

I felt physically stabbed by my own words. My wife turned the blade.

Tae: And you’re very jealous! Aren’t his stories fresh and original? I am sure you are as good a storyteller but your material is so old and boring.”

The story is delightful and the characters so convincing they could step off the page in their traditional Japanese dress. However, beneath the simplicity and quaintness is the darker political reality of Japan’s new expansionism. Akabane-sensei finds himself in mortal danger as he inadvertently becomes the target of right-wing militarists and is mixed up in a plot to annex Korea.

Lian Hearn (real name Gillian Rubinstein) also wrote the popular Tales of the Otori fantasy series set in feudal Japan. Though English-born, she spent much of her childhood in Nigeria and moved to Australia in 1973.