The Samurai's Garden
By Gail Tsukiyama
Published in 1994
Published by St. Martin's Griffin, N.Y.
Normally, people think of book reviews as being mainly for recently published fiction, to introduce the latest novels written by the latest authors to the world. And usually, this is all good. But once in a while, I think it's good to mix it up and put a review of a less-recently published book out there, like this novel The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. Before this was given to me to read for my new book club, I had never heard of this book, nor its author. It's all part of the too many books, too little time problem - sadly I know I will never even hear about all of the 'must reads' out there, but I'm glad I got introduced to this one. And or that reason alone, I am writing this review, just in case anyone out there has missed this gem of a book.
Gail Tsukiyama is ethnically half Japanese, half Chinese but given she was born in San Francisco, 100% American. Given that I'm married to a Taiwanese guy and we both live in Taiwan but both feel that New Zealand is home, I am constantly intrigued by others who also walk the line between two cultures. Indeed, walking the line between two conflicting cultures is at the very heart of this novel.
Stephen, our narrator, has been sent away from his native Hong Kong to rural Japan to recuperate from tuberculosis on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930's. Although the two countries are locked in a bitter conflict, Stephan finds peace and comfort in the village of Tarumi where he stays with Matsu - a servant of his family for many years. As Stephen gets to know the silent Matsu more and more, he comes to realise that the hardship he feels in being away from his friends and family pales in comparison to the hardship those around him have suffered. This realisation spurs Stephen to grow in maturity and spirit and to look outside of his own introspection to find ways to help others.
Another factor which aids his recovery is Keiko - a fleeting, elusive presence in his life who captures Stephen's attention - but given the war between their two countries, their different cultures and her excessively strict father, can they ever find happiness together?
My favourite thing about this novel was the sheer beauty of the writing. The simplicity of the writing reminds me of an old-style Chinese painting of the mountains, it feels restful yet stimulating at the same time. Not once does the writing become boring or tired - just as I can look at these sorts of paintings for hours on end and not tire of it. It was a joy to read and has been added to the exclusive list of books I know that I will re-read, it really was that good.
If you haven't read this book, or anything by Gail Tsukiyama before I would definitely recommend that you have a look for her writing. I know I'm going to be scouring the bookshops for more!