I love books that can transport you to places that in itself are central characters of a novel. I have to say though, it’s been awhile since I read that kind of a book that made me yearn to actually visit that special place featured in a story. That was when I took a gamble and picked out Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden.
Gail Tsukiyama is not the first Japanese writer (she’s actually half-Chinese) I’ve encountered so I had a bit of a reservation when picking out the book. I’ve read Banana Yashimoto’s Asleep and gave in to curiosity by getting Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake. These stories are more character-centric and very introspective. I’m thinking these are typical of modern Japanese literature? They’re great for reading on a stormy day for sure.
But when I was searching for a book to read, I was trying to find something that would transport me to a place where I want to be instead of my boring room. I think The Samurai’s Garden delivered it quite nicely even though the setting is just a metaphor for the very heart of the story which are the people that the main protagonist meets.
The book is a very easy read. The story is quite simple – a young adult meets 3 interesting individuals and he uncovers mysteries about them which made him take a closer look at relationships, loyalty, and devotion in the context of the Japanese culture. Aside from a mildly shocking event and the backdrop of World War 2, nothing happens outwardly. The change in the characters are within and it’s fascinating how Tsukiyama managed to keep the story a real page turner despite such subtle plots.
The story opens in Hong Kong where a sick Chinese boy, Stephen, is battling Tuberculosis amidst another crisis which is Japan’s invasion of China. The well-off family decides to send the boy to Tarumi, a small seaside community in Japan, where their family keeps a beach house. His father’s import-export business’ headquarters are also in Japan so he becomes responsible for the boy in the meantime.
In the beach house, he meets the gardener-cum-overall-caretaker, Matsua, a very grumpy looking but secretly compassionate and loyal middle aged man. Matsu takes care of Stephen’s needs and overtime, he trusted the boy enough to let him in on a sort of secret. Through Matsu, Stephen meets Sachi, a once very beautiful girl who got afflicted with leprosy and is now living in a leper colony. Matsu shows his devotion to his secret love by providing her with everything she needs including a Japanese rock garden that is an anti-thesis of his own garden, down at the beach house.
While Matsu’s garden was filled with lush vegetation, flowers, and conventional beauty of nature, Sachi’s garden is stark, colourless, and filled with things like stone, pebbles, and rocks. This is because she can’t stand to look at beauty, a painful reminder of what once was and can never be again.
The heart of the story lies with Matsu and Sachi’s relationship. How deep it really is and how much each is willing to sacrifice for friendship and loyalty. Stephen is a witness to this wonder of humanity which also caused him to examine his family and realise how different and seemingly shallow his mother and father’s relationship is in comparison.
While the characters are all richly fleshed out, I just love how Tarumi is brought to life in the story. The description of the beach, the town, the house, and the gardens all created vivid images in my head and now I want to go there.
On the top of my head, here are 3 other books I’ve read the made me want to go to the place where the story was set:
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – I’ve reviewed this book set in Lyme Regis, coastal town of West Dorset, England. The story centers on Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two famous fossil hunters and spinsters.
A Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger – From the writer of that famous book, Time Traveller’s Wife. Her next novel was set in London’s High Gate Cemetery. Although the story was a disappointment, I was highly intrigued by the setting. I would love to go to High Gate someday.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Nothing says character better than the Moors and it’s howling winds. Everyone needs a break from sunny beaches sometimes.
What books would you recommend for someone who wants to be transported to far off lands?