Jonathan Mirsky

The ultimate price

Lesley Downer is one of the most unusual authors writing in English.

The ultimate price
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The Courtesan and the Samurai

Lesley Downer

Bantam, pp. 338, £

Lesley Downer is one of the most unusual authors writing in English. Years ago, determined to become an expert on the Japanese geisha, ultra-sophisticated entertainers and hostesses who are neither prostitutes nor courtesans, she became a Kyoto geisha herself and wrote Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World.

Now she has written her second novel (the first being The Last Concubine), the story of Hana, a young samurai wife in the late 1860s. She lives in Edo, soon to become Tokyo, the capital of Japan. The country is being ripped apart by civil war — vividly narrated here — and, no longer isolated, is adopting enough Western ways to escape the colonialism that afflicted most of the rest of Asia.

As in Downer’s previous books I noticed her careful research. But what we want are characters and a story. She shows us characters we come almost to love, while others are awful or ambiguous. Hana, only 17, is married to a ferocious samurai who beats and rapes her constantly, par for that world. Fleeing from her home to escape the colliding armies — her husband is far away, commanding one of them — Hana winds up in the Yoshiwara, Edo’s pleasure quarter where, at first to her shame, but soon to her own pleasure, she becomes a courtesan.

Before long, she is the most sought-after beauty in the Yoshiwara. She’s a vision. Thick with aromatic pomade, her hair is piled into ‘towering loops and coils, smooth and shiny as polished lacquer.’ Her teeth are a sexy black, soft white wax covers her throat, face and chest, and she is dusted with clouds of white rice powder. Only the nape of her neck is left naked, a reverse décolletage that drives men crazy. And what an outfit! (See the book’s frontispiece for a photograph of a genuine courtesan.) Swathed in layers of precious kimonos, teetering on super-high clogs, if she artfully extended a bare foot ‘it conjured up the woman concealed inside.’

Hana has learned from expert older courtesans how to keep a customer waiting, and when the wait is over how to fake sexual ecstasy. To the envy of every woman in the Yoshiwara, the richest and probably ugliest man in Japan wants to buy Hana, but she has already made the direst mistake for a courtesan: falling in love. Not even a customer, her lover is a defeated swordsman in the civil war. I believed in this engrossing story and felt my insides quake as Hana approached her inevitable fate.