Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ellis Avery/THE TEAHOUSE FIRE


A nine-year-old French-American girl is stranded in Meiji-era Kyoto when her uncle's Jesuit missionary burns down. Alone in an intensely xenophobic country with only the most rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, Aurelia (whose name, Japanized, becomes Urako) finds refuge with the Shins, a family of tea ceremony masters who have been favored by the Shogun for the last three hundred years.

Painstakingly research and vividly reenacted, The Teahouse Fire is a relentlessly honest depiction of Japan from a foreigner's point of view (she says very, very knowingly). I was impressed with the way Avery was able to bring the art of tea to the center of a story and make it symbolic of many layers of society and the story.

I was a little disappointed with it, but it's possible I'd hoped for too much from the book going in. The book was a little on the long side (for my taste), and yet somehow the author managed to rush through the things I wanted to know more about. Although ostensibly the story of Urako and her unrequited loves, the narrative really focuses on Yukako, the "older sister" who first brings Urako into the Shin family but whose friendship falters and becomes plagued with selfishness as the book progresses. It is painful to watch Urako's non-life as she sinks passively into the stories of people who don't notice her or don't like her; it is also not as painful as I hoped it would be to experience through her eyes Yukako's ongoing insensitivity and accidental rejection.

Also, it was just a little overwritten, especially at the beginning. The author was a little bit self-indulgent with little Japanese-to-English gems that must have been even more alienating for English language readers who don't have years and years of Japanese language study behind them. Urako's first year in Japan is narrated in a confusing and misunderstood way--doubtlessly to help you feel the frustration and aimlessness of her character--but I found myself having to read some paragraphs three or four times just to figure out what she was trying to say.

Nevertheless, qualms aside--the book is a careful and beautiful tapestry, and is subtler and smarter than, say, the crowd-pleasing MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. If you're a Japanophile this is a must.

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