The Teahouse Fire
This is a very interesting debut novel by Ellis Avery. What struck me most about it is the author had obviously learnt Japanese and learnt it in some depth. Usually in novels about Japan there are a few tidbits thrown to the reader about Japanese but I often get the feeling that it is so superficial, that the author just did a little bit of research for added flavour. Ms. Avery shows some deeper insight or at least I can identify with her characters struggles in learning Japanese and learning to write.
By the time I was thirteen, in the second year of Meiji, I had a grasp of spoken Japanese that mirrored, I think, the way Yukako read and wrote: multiple strands of information spun towards us and we knotted together a meaning using what we knew and what we expected to hear. I understood what was said to me because it was said to me, and in due course I had heard many times over the few hundred things anyone—Yukako and little Zoji excepted—ever said to me. I could only understand what people said to each other if I listened very carefully; I could say much less than I could understand.
I recognise this in my own efforts. When being spoken to I can pick up the meanings, most other Japanese is background noise. I have to listen very carefully to follow it. Maybe I’m only prepared to listen to information I find important though and it’s very easy to let everything else wash over you.
Another passage slightly further along says something very apt about how kanji work. I always wonder if Japanese see the same blocks of meaning in kanji as I do or do they just see the word and it’s pronunciation?
Taking in pictures kana and kanji, Yukako came away with a story because she expected a story. She could read a sentence aloud and explain it in detail, but if I pointed to a kanji, she became flustered and irritable; she couldn’t tell me what it meant on it’s own, even though she had just used it in context to explain the sentence. She understood far more kanji than she could write….
…An ordinary speaker of English knows what a conversation is, a literate person can spell the word, an educated person will know it comes from Latin through French, and a specialist will know that con means with and verse means turn. A poet will hear conversation as a turning together. All the layers are there in English too.
I presume the author learnt Japanese because of her interest in Chado（茶道 tea ceremony) and her interest in Chado led her to write this novel.
It is set in the late 1800s after Japan was forced open by the Black Ships. The Meiji period must have been one of great turmoil as Japan went from a feudal agrarian society to a less feudal, industrial society. The character of Yukako in the book was based on a real person, and presumably the major events recounted are accurate too. Sen Yukako was responsible for the tea ceremony becoming part of the curriculum in the new girls schools. In doing so she changed what was once an all male art into one that might now be more identified with women. (Although from what little I know the master practitioners are men).
In essence the story is of a young French-American girl who is stranded in Japan after a fire and gets adopted into the household of a Tea Master. It is about her love for the daughter of the house, how she fits into Japanese society, and about the many social changes undergoing Japan in the Meiji period.
The narrator of the story is a young girl brought to Japan by missionaries when Japan is opened up. In some ways this is the most unconvincing part of the book. It requires a hefty suspension of disbelief. But it is necessary to have this western voice tell the story so you can appreciate what is happening in Japan. A Japanese voice wouldn’t have been as convincing or interesting I think.
Much is made, it seems, of the sexuality of the main character. Oddly I found it to be central to her character but peripheral to the story. (or is that the other way around?) I myself see the love as one of yearning for a mother or a sister and then that being transformed into something more sexual. I also don’t feel you really learn anything about sexuality in Japan of the Meiji period. Certainly Japan didn’t have Christian guilt about sex. That started to come in around this time to appease the colonial powers in order to show Japan as a modern nation and so re-negotiate the uneven treaties. But definitely you learn about the role of women within the society. Not so good, but if you think about it it wasn’t that good in Europe and America for women at the time either. Indeed there may have been more power and freedom for women in Japan.
The other interesting strand in the book is something that has always bothered me about depictions of Japanese samurai culture. In a feudal system the comfort of those at the top and their ability to indulge in (when you get down to it) rather pointless art is based on the toil and misery of the lower strata of society. And Japanese society was completely rigid for 200 years after the “reforms” at the beginning of the Edo period. The book doesn’t quite explore this theme, as you can see the author loves Chado, but there is a sense of unease there.
I also feel after reading the book that it’s almost like the middle book in a trilogy. The first chapters that aren’t set in Japan and the last chapters you feel could have been fleshed out into books in their own right. Indeed I’d really like to see the later chapters as a book on their own. I really want to know more about Inko, she is a character I’d feel great affection for.
I recommend this book. It’s well written. Although it is fiction the author comes across as knowing what she writes about. As well she should do having studied Chado for 5 years including spending time in Kyoto.