Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn
Japan, 1857. For centuries Japan has been on its own; isolated by choice from the rest of the world. But the Western powers are now at its shores demanding to be let in, the government is crumbling and revolution is building. The age of the samurai is ending and in its place a new Japan will be born. A young woman is readying herself for marriage in this, the most tumultuous period of her nation’s history. The daughter of a doctor, Tsuru has been working alongside him and learning the ways of medicine all her life. When her father allows her to marry the man she loves – a fellow doctor – she believes her life will be all she’s dreamed it could be. Happily married, working amongst men as an equal. But Japanese society does not work this way. The men of the times – boys she’s known since childhood – are determined to expel the foreigners, using violence and whatever else they need to make their message heard. The women are expected to be hidden at home, or behind the paper walls of the tea houses. Tsuru is far too able to accept this and she is drawn into a shadowy world of subversion, political intrigue and a dangerous love. In time, she is working on the battlefields, alongside men, to care for the wounded.
Lian Hearn is mostly known for her bestselling series The Tales of the Otori, which have been sold in 36 countries. Lian has always had a lifelong interest in Japan so it is not surprising that her latest novel Blossoms and Shadows is also set there. Although The Tales of the Otori was very much written for a Young Adult audience, Blossoms and Shadows has definitely been written for adults, and is much more of a historical work of fiction. Many of the characters featured in the novel are on based on real people who had a big influence on the events of the time inJapan.
The protagonist of the novel is Tsuru, the daughter of a village doctor, who is very eager to follow in his footsteps. However, because she is a woman the customs of the time will not permit her to do any such thing. She must get married, have children, and do anything possible to support her husband. For Tsuru, this is not an option. She is intelligent, strong-willed and above all determined that she will not give up her dreams of becoming a doctor.
The year of 1857 in Japan is one of political unrest. More foreigners are coming to its shores, bringing with them weapons that the Japanese have never seen. Many of the people that Tsuru has grown up with become activists in trying to stop the foreigners influencingJapanany more. They want their old country back the way it once was, but with the world and technology advancing, will this ever be possible? And will this new world allow Tsuru to be the woman she’s always wanted to be – one with more possibilities, opportunities, and more freedom?
Although the story itself is incredibly beautiful and moving, and much more of a page-turner than I ever expected it to be, it is not without its flaws. For a woman born in Englandwith no Japanese origins, it is incredible the amount of knowledge Hearn has of Japan. It is clear to any of her readers, that Japanis a big part of her life and passions. However, in some ways this need to prove her knowledge has threatened to spoil what could essentially be a very good novel. From the very first page, Blossoms and Shadows inundates you with Japenese names and place-names that all sound very similar and you will never remember, or care for. Each character is known by at least two or three different names throughout the novel and it is very infuriating to have to try and remember who is who, despite the inclusions of a character list at the beginning of the book. I found that I often skim-read through these parts of the book, and gave up on trying to remember who is who. The parts of the story about Tsuru and her family are very gripping and beautifully written. Any parts of the story written about the wars and battles went quite over my head most of the time. I have no doubt that this will put many readers off just from reading the first few pages, which is a shame because the story beneath these facts is brilliant and thought-provoking.
The other gripe I have about this novel is the inclusion of numerous chapters throughout that focus on a different character each time, who is on the brink of death. Most of the novel is told from Tsuru’s perspective and it is for Tsuru that I kept wanting to read on. I don’t think the novel benefits in any way of having another characters perspective for a couple of pages, it just draws you away from what you really want to be reading.
This novel is definitely suited for anyone with an interest in Japanese history. There is a beautiful story in there, but you have to be prepared to sift through the historical facts to get to it. It is beautifully told, and elegantly written, and I did thoroughly enjoy it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to those who enjoyed The Tales of the Otori. Blossoms and Shadows is something entirely different.
Blossoms and Shadows is out now, published by Quercus.