Sunday, March 29, 2009

Book 35: The Teahouse Fire

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

I've made the comment before that I'm occasionally hesitant to read novels like Memoirs of Geisha nowadays because even if someone is fascinated by a subject, there is still the risk of taking another culture and making it more exotic. After all, after Memoirs of a Geisha was published, there were complaints about how inaccurate it was (a white author narrating as a Japanese woman - even with the best of intentions, surely there are things the guy can miss). The reason I picked this up is that the author chose to use a French-American woman who grew up in Japan as her main character - yes, it's still Western-centric in a way, but at least, this way the author isn't pretending to be an expert on anything. Instead, she is observing and relating, occasionally drawing conclusions and analyzing, but for the most part she never claims to completely understand everything even after twenty years.

Aurelia travels to Japan with her Jesuit uncle in 1866, and after a house fire, runs away. Yukako and her family take her under their care (although this more or less means they take her in as a servant), treating her as a slow and slightly deformed Japanese girl rather than a foreigner. Yukako's family are tea masters and train several men in the art of the tea ceremony. The gradual influence of the West and political changes lead to major cultural changes in Japan. Yukako has the most business acumen of anyone in her family, including her father and husband, who is set in the old ways. As Yukako becomes more involved in the business, especially after her father's death, she assures her familiy's survival with the changing times. Aurelia stays with the family for over twenty five years, and in that time, the tea ceremony evolves from a ceremony for samurai to something taught primarily to women to enrich the home life. Yukako doesn't necessarily approve of all the changes but does everything she needs to do to keep up with times.

There are also various romantic subplots and geisha running throughout the story. Aurelia becomes close friends with a girl named Inko, but for the most part, she is focused on Yukako and absolutely adores her. As the years progress, Aurelia helps Yukako with her interactions with the foreigners, but she also begins to feel less important and more like she is simply a servant rather than a trusted friend (when she first arrives at the home, Yukako tells her to call her "older sister").

The novel was very detailed, and witnessed several changes in Japanese culture and history. Avery also notes the arrogance some of the Americans and other foreigners had towards the culture, barely bothering to learn Japanese yet wanting to turn them into proper Christians and so forth. It was a bit slow at times and I guess when it comes down to it, I'm really not that interested in the tea ceremony but the ways the two cultures interacted and influenced each other were interesting.

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