The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

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May 11, 2015

THE READING JOURNEY continues! This little gem ended up being a lot denser than I thought, and took me a whole extra five days to read than I’d anticipated. Luckily, I followed it up with a short book, so I’m back on track today. 

The Teahouse Fire is inevitably charming for anyone who loves Japanese history and female heroines.

It examines the history of a samurai-class family who practices  tea ceremony and the changes that are wrought upon them with the fall of the Shogun, and the rise of the emperor and the beginning of the Meiji era. The narrative also weaves family ties with the cultural nuances of Japanese culture, society, and opinion of the time. 

The Meiji period marks the start of the infusion of the west in Japan, which brought all sorts of problems to isolationist Japan, even in large capitals like Kyoto where the book is set. Bonds that had been forged during the Tokugawa era (the last era of ‘classic’ Japanese history) are challenged by different reactions to the new infusion of culture from the west that opened the Meiji period.

The story is driven by a fantastic lord and liege dynamic between the narrator, orphaned french girl Aurelia who is brought to Japan by Christian missionaries, and the headstrong female proprietor of the Shins, a samurai-class tea family who adopts her, Shin Yukako.

Aurelia is a sympathetic if simple character. Your heart breaks for her when even after years of living in Japan, she’s still looked down on as a dirty ‘foreigner’ by the women at the community bathhouse, and told to bathe elsewhere. The fact that Avery is also able to weave an unexpected lesbian vantage into this unique point in history makes it all the more enjoyable and impressive.

At times the prose can be clunky and dense, as the author struggles to describe everything form the eyes of our foreign narrator, who doesn’t always understand what she is seeing.  The character development is beautiful, but extremely slow (over the course of 25 years). That being said, if you read this, you’re really reading it for the author’s excellent knowledge of Japanese history and language, evident in her extreme attention to detail and commentary on the Japanese language from the eyes of the narrator. 

Read this if you like Memoirs of a Geisha, Japanese history, historical literature, Japanese tea ceremony, inter-generational epics, LGBT stories, or Lisa See novels.

I’m reading 41 books this year. See original post here.

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