Difference between revisions of "Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn"

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{{infobox1
 
|title=Blossoms and Shadows
 
|title=Blossoms and Shadows
|sort=Blossoms and Shadows
 
 
|author=Lian Hearn
 
|author=Lian Hearn
|reviewer=Louise Laurie
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|reviewer=Lesley Mason
 
|genre=Historical Fiction
 
|genre=Historical Fiction
|summary=This story concentrates on Japan in the mid 19th century as it starts to see big changes in relation to the rest of the world.  A young girl tells her story: of life and love and also of her dreams of becoming a doctor in her native Japan.
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|rating=2.5
|rating=3.5
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|buy=No
|buy=Maybe
 
 
|borrow=Maybe
 
|borrow=Maybe
|paperback=0857382977
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|isbn=9780857382979
|hardback=
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|pages=478
|audiobook=B0051P3984
 
|ebook=
 
|pages=400
 
 
|publisher=Quercus
 
|publisher=Quercus
|date=May 2011
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|date=April 2011
|isbn=978-0857382979
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|summary=As 19th century Japan undergoes a social seismic shift, our fictional narrator's intriguing life story gets buried in too many historical facts.
|website=http://www.lianhearn.com/conversation.html
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|cover=0857382977
|video=SWfgnfhG5os
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|aznuk=0857382977
|amazonuk=<amazonuk>0857382977</amazonuk>
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|aznus=0857382977
|amazonus=<amazonus>0857382977</amazonus>
 
 
}}
 
}}
 +
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…''
  
I see from the front cover that Hearn is already a best-selling author with her ''Tales Of the Otori'' so I was looking forward to a good read.  However, I did slump a little when I opened the book and was presented with several pages of the story's characters - sub-divided into fictional and historical.
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''Blossoms and Shadows'' starts so well. I felt sure I would fall under its lyric spell of exotic orientalism.   
 
The story is told by a young Japanese girl Tsuru who is the main character.  The book opens with her sister's wedding celebrations.  So, plenty of scope to give readers a flavour of all things Japanese.  And Hearn certainly makes the most of the opportunity as we learn about the food eaten on special occasions and the clothes worn, for example.  An interesting piece of information was that a geisha not only came along to the wedding as a bona fide guest but she was treated with affection and even respect by the family.
 
 
We go into the background of quite a few of the characters at an early stage and yes, it could be a little confusing to remember who's who.  But I decided not to bother to keep flicking back and forth as it would annoy me and stop me from getting into the flow.  I remembered most of them.  Having said that, I was starting to enjoy the story and a country I'm not familiar with.  As early on as page 6 - war, foreigners and China were all mentioned.
 
 
Hearn's style and choice of words, especially descriptive words is apt.  Lines such as  ''My tears fell like rain'' and similar are numerous.  Initially it lends a nice, Japanese feel but then I thought she over-played it somewhat and the effect for me, was diluted.  Could also be a little sugary-sweet at times.  Tsuru is an ambitious and forward-thinking girl.  She wants to study medicine rather than take the normal route of marriage and babies.  Not only that, but Japanese girls are expected to be seen and not heard within the domestic household, so it looks as if it's going to be a difficult couple of years for Tsuru.  How will she cope?
 
 
But she has a get-out clause.  Her father is a respected local doctor and he allows his daughter to assist him.  She's a natural and gives off a professional air for one so young.  She's fortunate as ''Medicine was still the domain of men'' and owing to the extreme modesty of some female patients, it was deemed more appropriate that Tsuru deal with them rather than her father.  And of course all medicine at that time was herbal.  And as the novel progresses so too does the unorthodox career path of Tsuru.  Busy as she is, she even finds time for a spot of romance but it's clear that her passion is reserved for the medical profession.
 
 
But then the book took a big dip in terms of enjoyment for me.  Hearn introduces a lot of historical data.  Allowing for the fact that this is an historical novel, it's still a heck of a lot - especially for a work of fiction.  It's as if she has all this knowledge and information and she's determined to share it with her readers.  I really wished that in this section of the book that I was reading a work of non-fiction on Japanese history.  I also felt that at times I was reading an essay as it was so dense on the page.  Page after page after page, I'm afraid.  There was very little let up.  Very little light and shade.  It could have done with perhaps more dialogue as a means of varietyTo be frank, I was relieved to get to the end of the book.  After a good and promising start, the novel went slowly downhill for me.
 
  
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
+
I didn't.
 
If this book appeals then you might like to try [[One Morning Like A Bird by Andrew Miller]].
 
  
{{amazontext|amazon=0857382977}} {{waterstonestext|waterstones=8005647}}
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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]]
 +
 
 +
{{amazontext|amazon=0857382977}}
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{{amazonUStext|amazon=0857382977}}
  
 
{{commenthead}}
 
{{commenthead}}
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[[Category:Literary Fiction]]

Latest revision as of 15:33, 20 March 2018


Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn

0857382977.jpg
Buy Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

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

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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 Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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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