Chrissie's Reviews > The Samurai's Garden

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
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Feb 04, 2011

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bookshelves: china, hf, japan, text-checked
Read from February 01 to 04, 2011


This book is beautiful. The primary theme is about beauty. (And then there is a love story too.) I think beauty is very important in the Japanese culture. What really is beauty? The tempo is lulling, quiet, and calming. This too creates a kind of beauty. The concept of beauty is drawn through the lives of the main characters. The novel takes place at the time of the Rape on Nanking, when the Japanese were invading and slaughtering the Chinese at the end of the 1930s. In contrast, the novel plays out in a small Japanese village outside of Kobe. You have the quiet village life following the seasons, the routine Japanese festivals and the pervading sense of tranguilty that gardens and gardening create. Honor and respect and traditions of non-confrontation/silence still cannot stamp out the rumbling fears and problems of the time. Not only are we confronted with hatred between Japanese and Chinese but also the fear and dishonor associated with leprosy, the lepers having been pushed out to the village Yamaguchi. Silence and honor cannot remove the threats of natural disasters, fires and storms of nature and of people. These contrasting forces play out against each other. On one side you have the lulling order of society, and yet underneath rumbles these threatening problems. All would seem less threatening if allowed to surface.

This novel teaches the reader about Japanese traditions. The prose style fits the message. Look at Indian art. Compare it to Chinese art and then to Japanese art. You clearly see that as we move eastward all the nonessentials are removed. What is left is pure and simple. Art is incorporated into all parts of daily life - house construction, bathing, gardening, the use of scrolls, food preparation, to name but a few. This pure, simple form of art is also reflected in how the Japanese interact with each other.

I think you will be surprised about who the main protagonists are in this novel. I do not see Stephen in this role. It is Matsu and Sachi. So be a bit patient when you begin the novel. You will delight in the life story of the main two protagonists. Remember, beauty is not always what is on the surface. I said this book was about beauty. Well it is. But What is beauty? Is it that we see only with our eyes? Is it the clicking of stones when you rake a stone garden? Is it the delight of soaking in a hot, clean bath?, Is it all of these things? Is it something more?

P.S. How the Japanese switch between Shinto beliefs and Buddhism for different ceremonies never ceses to amaze me!

Stephen and his family seemed a way for the author to incorporate the confict between the Japanese and the Chinese into the plot. I do not think this was adequately explored. I found it hard to believe the ease with which they were accepted by the Japanese. Maybe that is why I chose three rather than four stars.

And was Yamaguchi truly a Japanese leper colony, or is this fictitious?!
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04/11 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I really do hope you enjoy this book. I look forward to your review.

Chrissie Yes, it is perhaps we stop talking on the general thread.... We must not give spoilers to those who haven't read it. Saying that S is immature isn't a spoiler and it is just my impression.

I will let you know when the book is completed. It is a thin little book. You must have understood more of the Japanese words than I do! Cool. The importance of beauty and art in the book is already very clear.

Thank you, and Christine, for suggesting it!

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Like we said on the other thread, it is what the author intended for you to think about Stephen. Perhaps he was a bit too coddled by both of his parents?

Chrissie I still find him immature, but I like him. He knows in his heart he must talk with Sachi after the X. This respect of honor and the desire to "not touch" in an effort to avoid pain and retain dignity, which seems very Japanese, can in fact cause more pain. Stephen is wise enough to see this. But look at his father! Can you split your life into different boxes and expect each to remain separate?

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Both his parents were living these half-lives, the honorable thing to do, I suppose. But it couldn't have been very satisfying, or happy, for either of them.

Chrissie I agree!

Jeanette, why don't we become GR friends. This is rather weird, we already are "friends". May I request it? If you don't want it, just ignore it. I thought I would ask Christine also. We all seem to have quite an overlap on book interests.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks, Chrissie. I was thinking the same thing myself. :)

message 8: by Manybooks (new) - added it

Manybooks Great review, Chrissie, was going to add the book, but it is already on my to-read pile. I don't know much about Japanese culture, but this book looks like a good place to start. The idea of a quiet life in a village contrasted with and to what was happening internationally, or rather, what the Japanese as a nation were doing internationally, is both interesting and disturbing, it seems that the tranquility and the beauty would be somewhat tainted by the knowledge of what was happening internationally (at least for the reader).

message 9: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, Excellent review! Beauty and slaughter: what a combination?!

message 10: by Chrissie (last edited Feb 05, 2011 09:40AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie Lisa, as I pointed out, the violence was farr off, more a fearsome threat than part of the novel. Look how the Japanese were put in internment camps in the US. I have issues with the believability of parts of this book. That is why a beautiful book only gets three stars.

message 11: by Barbara (last edited Feb 05, 2011 11:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Barbara Chrissie, I enjoyed reading this review. I really love this author. Her views on the Chinese/Japanese people could be explained by her parentage- her mother is Chinese and father Japanese. I think her earlier books more clearly delineate the differences and feelings between the two cultures. Have you read others by her? The Language of Threads: A Novel. Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama are the two which best describes what I am saying.

message 12: by Chrissie (last edited Feb 05, 2011 12:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie Barbara, I was hoping for a better look at the feelings between these two cultures. I did not get it from this book. The book description leads on to believe the reader will get a closer look at the Japanese/Chinese clash. I was disappointed. Furthermore, I am downright skeptical to the way Stephen was accepted in the village. Stephen also seemed extremely immature at the start of the novel. He did mature. By the novel's end he did come to act in a responsible, heartfelt manner. He was 20-21 years old! It was strange that Pie, who had been ill in her youth and thus had more reason to be coddled by the parents, seemed more mature than Stephen! She was 12. The only explanation I can find for Stephen's extreme immaturity was his illness... That really doesn't make sense either. I want the characters in fiction to act in a manner that I think is true to life. I never felt close to Stephen, as I did with Matsu and Sachi. The book was much more about them. Their relationship was touchingly portrayed. I had no trouble believing their story.

Yamaguchi does exist, but I find no proof of there being a leper colony there. Maybe there was, and I simply cannot find the information.

No, I have not read any other book by this author. I will look at the one you mentioned. Due to her heritage, I really had thought that the dislike between the Chinese and Japanese would play a more central part in the plot!

message 13: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, I do understand. I was being a bit obnoxious. The Japanese internment during WWII (in my state/country!) was a horrible injustice. I've read quite a bit about that, given that so much of what happened happened near me.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Interesting discussion. With this book I think I forgot about everything but Matsu and Sachi. To me, Stephen was just a vehicle to tell their story. The war was raging, times were unstable, violent, but these two people and their quiet love for life remained. That was what I really brought away from this book.

message 15: by Barbara (last edited Feb 05, 2011 04:16PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Barbara Chrissie, you will see in the two books that I mentioned how animosities and fear developed. Women of the Silk is the first and lays the groundwork for the second.

message 16: by Chrissie (last edited Feb 05, 2011 11:49PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrissie Heavens, I am having difficulty responding to all these replies. Let me say first of all, that the book is beautiful. I cannot depart from that. It beautifully sums up how the Japanese put value on and then incorporate beauty into their lives. It goes one step further in asking what really is beauty? Can somethin ugly to the eye remain beautiful. Of course the answer is yes. The book also SHOWS the reader the peace and tranguilty that beauty brings about is also shifted to their manner of ealing with people. These guys don't talk about anything. Argue, verbally, well forget it. Honor means respect and backing off and jeeping your thought to yourself. All of this is I believe very Japanese, This is of course changing rapidly. When you see the students on the trains, laughing and giggling and fiddling their mobiles hanging with little dolls, you will wonder if this is a reaction to the silence and order in their families? Or is it that they spend all of their days in school with their friends? Look, I am no expert. Any tourist will see what I have seen. You cannot help but wonder how it all fits together. So beauty is a huge part of Japanese life. The book brings this across marvelously.

What I dislike is the side figures the author used to present the story. Ewactly as you said Jeanetter, Stephen is merely a vehicle to present the story. Either the author should have made his position fuller, more realistic or she should have skipped him. There was plenty of story without him. I think he was also a vehicle to tie in the WW2 thread. This too wasn't developed enough. You know, let's catch the eye of tons of readers, all sorts of interests. I don't like being tricked into thinking a book will deliver on a subject that it doesn't.

Look, three stars means I liked the book. It is definitely worth reading. And I want to say right up front that I am very thankful that Christine and Jeanetter urged me to read it! Thank you. It was worth reading. Gundula, I do recommend it. I was uncomfortable presenting the negative aspects b/c I didn't want to hurt feelings.... That is the truth. I know I am a lousy liar, so I really avoid that path. Sooner or later, if I lie, I will say something that reveals my true feelings. And if you see my face it reveals the truth in an instant.

Barbara, oh I was confused about that being two books. I will check again.

And Lisa, you were not being obnoxious; You instantly saw the problem with the book. The book sells itself as offering both but delivers one one. It is a beautiful love story. And you seep up Japanese culture. On the other hand, if you haven't been in Japan, if you don't know what to look for, maybe a reader will miss what it says about Japanese life. Anyhow, then it is a moving love story.

Usch, that was long.

Thank you , all of you for sharing your thought with me. Thank you for letting me know you liked my review. It really was not easy to write. I felt so divided.....for the reasons I have explained.

Chrissie Lynne, thank you!

message 18: by Ed (new) - added it

Ed Chrissie, You sure generated a lot of comments with your review.

I have a comment and a question.

Comment: Both the Japanese and the Chinese have no problem accessing more than one religious belief system. In China you will find Buddhist temples filled with statues of Gods and Godesses from other religions. I think they are just being pragmatic: "whatever works".

Question: why only three stars. It was a five star review.

Chrissie Ed, I am not questioning the veracity of the Cinese and Japanese belif in several religion. You see it all over the palce on even a short visit to these countries. I just have a HUGE dificulty understanding this. It is like, oK today I will be Jewish in the morning and Muslim in the afternoon. How is it possible to choose to use Buddhism for death ceremonies and Shinto for weddings and births. I just cannot comprehend this.

Ed, in my mind this is not an "amazing book". It does some things very well, but is lacking elsewhere. I know it is hard to weed through all the comments above, but I felt the conflict between Japanese and Chinese is not at all properly discussed. I think the reader is hintingly told that this will be a major thread of the novel. It isn't. Furthermore Stephen as a character is not drawn very well. He was merely a tool in the author's hands. Please read the comments above.

This book should be sold as a love story. You will learn about the Japanese lifestyle too, and this is what I particularly enjoyed. Three stars beings exactly that - I liked the book, but it isn't perfect! Some parts really bothered me. Can't I have mixed feelings? Can't I like parts and dislike others?

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

This definitely was not written to tell the story of the Japan's war with China, and it's too bad that it disappointed you on that front. It is a love story, but not in the typical sense. It is also a story about the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality, living as opposed to just surviving. I am glad that these parts of the book spoke to you.

As for Japanese religion, modern day practices are such that it's Shinto for birth, Christian for weddings, and Buddhist for burial. These are obviously people who do not practice monotheism. The more I learn about Japanese culture, the more fascinating I find it to be. Thank you for your excellent review, Chrissie. It added to my appreciation of this book.

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I missed message 16, Chrissie, but I want to say I know exactly how you felt in having to express a negative reaction to a book that others "loved". I was in the same position with the last two 5-star books I just read. Don't stop being honest in your reviews. We are all very different and that's what makes life interesting. And, it helps us to learn more about each other. :)

Chrissie I have really appreciated talking with all of you about this book. I hope those who haven't read it, better understand what awaits them if they choose to read it. Those of us who have read it, it is fun sharing ideas, seeing different points of view!

message 23: by Manybooks (new) - added it

Manybooks Chrissie wrote: "I have really appreciated talking with all of you about this book. I hope those who haven't read it, better understand what awaits them if they choose to read it. Those of us who have read it, it i..."

I am still planning on reading this, Chrissie. The conversation has really piqued (or peaked) my interest.

Chrissie Gundula, I am very glad I read it. You know I am really tough with my stars. I wouldn't recommend a book if I gave it only one or two stars. Three stars means I like it! I cannot be the only one who follows those little words next to the respective stars..... It is definitely worth reading for the love story and to absorb Japanese traditions. You will see what I mean about the lulling prose. And there are exciting bits too.

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