Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn

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Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As 19th century Japan undergoes a social seismic shift, our fictional narrator's intriguing life story gets buried in too many historical facts.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 478 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9780857382979

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Ansei 4 – or 1857 to the western calendar – Itasaki Tsuru's older sister was getting married. It was a bittersweet day and the skies wept in sympathy with the steady trickle of the plum rains. It was the fourth year of Ansei in the intercalary fifth month, four years after the black ships had arrived in Uraga Bay; a strange time like waiting for a potion to boil…

Blossoms and Shadows starts so well. I felt sure I would fall under its lyric spell of exotic orientalism.

I didn't.

Lian Hearn has a grand story to tell. In 1857 Japan was on the cusp of a new dawn. Internal divisions were pulling the country apart. After years of isolation, thriving on the traditions of the Emperor and the Samurai, the country had to face a double threat. Internal divisions and ancient rivalries between the 260 domains that constituted the country were hindering its development. Most of them were deeply in debt. The semi-feudal government of the Shogun was beginning to be seen to be over-stepping its remit. The dreaded foreigners had arrived in their huge ships: the Dutch, the Americans. They may be claiming that they only wanted to trade, but those in the know in Japan had seen what had happened in China. The middle kingdom with all its strength had been forced to yield Hong Kong and Shanghai. How could lowly Japan, with all its current problems expect to stand firm?

Some in Japan saw that they had to put aside their internal differences to face up to this new enemy. Others saw the way forward in trade, and learning new ideas from the west, taking the best of all worlds. Particularly attractive were the complementary good-and-evil of medicine and weaponry. Many others held to the old ways.

Result: turmoil. Civil wars fought the old ways with the old weapons. A plot to overthrow the government.

And for most people: life just continuing as it always did in times of uncertainty.

Into this melting pot the author places Tsuru and has her tell her own story. Tsuru is the younger daughter of a country doctor. Her brother is away studying Dutch medicine. Her elder sister is marrying as the story opens and, according to tradition, will leave her birthplace to enter the home of her new husband's family. Tsuru herself is still at home helping to run the practice. Trained in pharmacy by her father, she has also been allowed to assist in diagnosis. In another time, she would have become a doctor herself. In this time, things are different.

Doctors hold a tenuous undefined position in this society. Of no official social standing, they are never-the-less well-regarded, since all will need their services from time to time, and even the lords see the need to maintain a certain level of favour with them – their children being as likely to die of measles as those in the lowliest hovel.

It is this very precise set of circumstances that enables Tsuru to move between the worlds: the domestic and the political. There are limits however. After all, she is female. Even those on the other side of the world, with all their strange practices, are only just beginning to permit women into the world as quasi-equals.

Traditionally she will be expected to marry a man of her father's choosing, but he is broadminded enough to allow her some leeway in this and a visit to her new in-laws will bring into her life a man whom both she and her father might choose. So begins a kind of love story.

Tsuru's life is not destined to be that simple. There is a war coming, and she will get caught up in it. Love is also a fickle thing, and is sometimes found in unexpected places and leads to surprising choices, some honoured, some regretted.

Love and war. Secrets and lies. A pageant spanning the birth of a new country. It should sparkle with blossom and carry threat in the shadows. Sadly, it fails on both counts.

Sadly, Blossoms and Shadows is a deft demonstration of the dangers of making use of all of your research. Hearn clearly knows her history inside out. She wants her readers to fully understand everything that was going on, and how, and why it came to be. There is an overwhelming about of information buried in the book.

What it mostly overwhelms is Tsuru's story.

You should always be worried when an author feels the need to give you a cast of characters. It seems probable that you are going to need it. When that cast list approaches 60, half of whom are genuine historical characters, and several of whom go by different names at different times, you know you're in trouble. For a western reader who is already stumbling over the pronunciation and 'strangeness' of those names, it isn't made any easier by the inconsistency of using the fore- or sur-name to describe a character from one page to the next. This may be true to convention, but it creates a perception of even more people to try to keep a grip on.

The canvas is broad, but it is crammed with far too many people. I could not keep track of who was who. Perhaps many of those around the periphery I could have let go as 'scenery' or 'local colour', but being unable to remember who many of them were, and how they fitted in, meant that I couldn't be sure that I didn't have to pay attention to them. Worse, it left little space to properly develop Tsuru's voice. She comes across as a stilted historian, cramming in fact after fact of what happened, rather than a survivor telling a personal tale of adventure and excitement, love and loss, growth and pain. By the mid-point I was already aware that I was not engaging with her. I was curious as to how things turned out, but I can't say I really cared. Dramatic episodes in her life were described with as much emotion as I imagine (from a position of ignorance) that a westerner would derive from a Noh performance.

Passion is absent; suspense non-existent; characterisation sketchy throughout. The whole reads very much like a debut novel, not the follow-up to a multi-million-selling series. I can't speak for the series, but I wouldn't put this one too high on the list.

For more historical fiction from Japan, try The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell or for a modern explanation of the country see Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

Buy Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn at Amazon.com.


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