Having lived for 15 years in Japan, Lesley Downer has already written several highly informed books with Japanese themes. For her most famous, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, she spent six months with those artful women who make every man they entertain with song, dance and chat feel adored, without — usually — going further than that. I found Downer’s novels readable but not especially memorable.
Now she has written a really good novel, suffused with the atmosphere of Japan in the late 19th century — when westernising influences were begin to penetrate its traditional culture — and populated with believable characters, whose fates are not settled until the last few suspenseful pages.
It opens with the end of the north-south civil war and the establishment of the western-facing Meiji regime, the emperor having moved from Kyoto to the new capital, Tokyo. Bitterness simmers between the victors and the vanquished. This is played out within the family of a retired (but still alluring) geisha, mistress of the commander of the victorious forces, and their daughter. The latter falls in love with a servant who, unknown to his employers, comes from one of the families defeated in the civil war.
The young couple’s prolonged and unconsummated affair is anchored in a world of samurai customs that is slowly being eroded. Keen to learn the new vogue, the two study English and French, eat beef — disgusting but modern — while with-it women abandon their once so sexy blackened teeth for white ones, and squeeze themselves into western clothes, tight and stiff compared to their flowing but outmoded traditional dress.
A fresh civil war breaks out when some of the victors, disgusted by the commercialism of the new regime and its loss of traditional values, turn on it. The family is caught up in this, with the girl and the boy now on different sides. Will they ever finally get together? At one point, when it looks as if they will actually make desperate love, as he undoes her kimono, I wrote ‘No!, No!’ in the margin, and ‘Whew!’ when they didn’t.
It’s interesting to watch Downer find her powers in this novel. Starting out somewhat stiffly, and leaning on her considerable knowledge of Japanese history, she allows her riveting story to gain pace and seemingly tell itself. I wish she didn’t make her underclass males speak like cockneys with dropped aitches, and her genteel women lapse occasionally into London demotic with phrases like, ‘Well, I never!’ But these are minor irritations, which in no way interrupt the narrative or distract from the central characters and their possible fates. Lesley Downer has finally hit the bull’s eye as a novelist.