Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai's Garden because it was recommended for its insights into Japanese culture. Gail Tsukiyama's father is Japanese from Hawaii, her mother Chinese from Hong Kong; she was born and raised in San Francisco. She's published seven novels; The Samurai's Garden in 1996. It was, I believe, a best-seller and the 151 Amazon.com reader reviews are overwhelmingly positive. For example, "A customer" writes, "Gail Tsukiyama is a masterful and wondrous storyweaver... This book helped me realize so many things about myself...."

A book club writes that the book "is a soothing, hypnotic, heartbreaking, evocative book we all enjoyed... The book explores cultural differences and similarities as it portrays the development of friendship and respect in disparate characters...."

The story: In the late 1930, as the Japanese are attacking China, Stephen, a young (17? 20?) Chinese boy, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent by his wealthy family to recuperate at the family's summer home in a Japanese coastal village. Matsu, "a samurai of the soul," takes care of the home and its garden (thus the title). Stephen meets Matsu's soulmate, Sachi, a leper who lives in a village of lepers within a day's walk of the family home. Stephen's father, who apparently heads a successful trading company, lives in Tokyo and, we learn, has a mistress. Stephen is attracted to and eventually kisses a Japanese village girl.

This is one of those times when I wonder if the people who loved the book read the same novel I did.

First, I don't feel it gave me any useful insights into Japanese culture.

Second, I felt Tsukiyama was manipulating the characters for an effect; they were not, for the most part, acting out of their own wants, needs, desires.

Third, I thought she was too coy about the location of the village. On the Pacific Coast? The Inland Sea? Japan Sea? And she seemed cavalier about Stephen's TB. When he left Hong Kong at the beginning of the book, he seemed very sick; by the time he reached the village, not so sick. And that Stephen with TB—usually very infectious—would kiss a girl seemed almost hostile.

Finally, I'll quote Library Journal with which I concur: the book "is sunk by a flat, dull prose style, one-dimensional characters who fail to engage the reader's interest, and the author's tendency to tell rather than show."

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