“There is some bond between them as if they were lovers in a former life. Over the days he recovers his spirits; they talk about politics and poetry, they exchange verses. Often she feels his eyes on her face as if he finds her beautiful. Even an old woman can feel the Spring, she writes.”
After reluctantly floating out of Dejima at the end of the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet I managed to sneak back into Japan forty years later, following Tsuru in her quest to become a doctor, and find love at a time when the old and new were clashing together, with life changing consequences.
LIan Hearn has put down the tales of the Otori to give us an excellent novel of the Meiji restoration, as Tsuru’s life becomes intertwined with the revoltionaires from her domain of Choshu as they seek to restore power from the fading Shogunate to the Emperor. At the same time America has demanded Japan ends it’s isolation and the British, French and Dutch are all scheming to get a foot on the Japanese soil. As the domains take sides, strive for power while at the same time trying to prevent their rivals from gaining power, a driven few will see that enemies must unite, and that change must come, whatever the cost. There are plans and schemes, battles and pilgrmages as Japan is dragged into a new future. One of the domains older warriors accuses the younger ones of thinking too much about the future, rather than how to achieve it, but as Tsuru struggles to see chances for herself in the old world or the new, she wonders if they think about it enough.
These aren’t the only problems Tsuru faces, there is also a relentless number of names thrown at her throughout the book. I read on and eventually managed to remember about four characters, only for them to die or change their names completely. Naturally Tsuru had no such problems, and she didn’t even have the guide at the beginning of the book detailing all the characters, which I decided not to use as it would have taken me years to cross check every time I was confused, which was often. I’m currently listening to a Short History of Japan podcast (here if you’re interested) and they haven’t quite reached this period, so as usual, not only did I bring my own Japanese naming inadequacies to the book, I had no idea what was what and what happened at the end, still it’s always a lot more interesting if you don’t know the end no?
But names aside I loved this book, Lian Hearn has crafted a deep and rich painting of 19th Century Japan, and you can almost feel her passion for the country and this particular period in the narrative, which sees Tsuru have an incredible life that is buffeted by great sadness but which sees power restored to the Emperor and the birth of modern Japan.