Deborah's Reviews > The Printmaker's Daughter

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier
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's review
Dec 04, 2011

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bookshelves: art-influenced, available-on-kindle, historical-novel, new-author-for-me, reviewer-book, woman-writer, oriental-novel
Read in January, 2011

"The Printmaker's Daughter" is a book of considerable consternation. While the overall story of artists Hokusai and his daughter, Oei, is complex and interesting, it falls short somehow in this translation to novel.

As a subject of art history, theirs is a biographical tale that is fascinating. Finding out that an example of Oei's work is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts especially captured my attention! ( I'm making tracks to see it when I go home to visit my children and grands.) It's also interesting to note via Ms Govier's biographical notes at the end of the book, that an American collector purchased many of the prints and had them put in a museum; then, by his will decreed that they could never be loaned: "the collection had been in storage for 100 years."

In this book, what seems to have happened in Ms Govier's elaboration in novel form is that she took the bones of the historical knowledge of Hukosai and Oei, and tried to reconstruct a story around those details. Often that's a good place to start; however, what resulted was a "term paperish" book that left out the essence of the people and the art you'd hope to find in a novel.

There are no real feelings engendered, no emotion truly felt and shown by way of the characterizations. None of the characters moved me at all. I felt a strict distance from them throughout this novel, despite the fact that there were several opportunities that could have been employed to enlist sympathy, empathy, and all sorts of identification in pain and love. There is a definite void of emotion in these very flat characters. It was as if I was getting a view of complete strangers and it stayed that way until the end with no insight into their real thoughts and feelings. Even the lovely and abused courtesan that Hokusai loved was left a blank slate of her true thoughts and agonies. And, what's more, I missed finer details of the landscape, temple convent and buildings! Extremely frustrating.

Now, how can this be true in contrast? I liked the story as it played out, and I believe that those who love novels of this oriental flavor will enjoy it for that reason. I enjoyed the fantasy of how Oei may have looked and acted with the courtesans and her father, and how she may have become the great artist many think she actually was. But I had to skim (which is antithetical to my reading spirit!) through long parts to get to that liking. I had to give up a lot of what I wanted and expected.

The book was too long and left too much out. That's a strange one... In terms of the descriptions of making art; painting on silk and printmaking in particular, we are completely left in the dark. I wanted to know the process, the artist's angst, the finding and connection with colors, the choices of engravers and printers and something about them, the type of paper used, etc. I wanted to know their reactions when the engraving didn't work out! There was so little about the artists' spirits and the compulsion to make art; what first inspired him and her. So much substance could have been included, but wasn't.

I was disappointed with a novel that had such promise in facts available. This is a story that could have had such an impact today not only with regard to women in general, but also with regard to the recognition of women artists; and women artists in Japan, in particular.

So much of the "red light district" of Koshiwara could have been described in exciting, lush detail; but wasn't. I was frustrated with that and with what was lost in the opportunity to capture my imagination with stories and better descriptions of the courtesans. They were shadow images...stick figures.

This book, then, is a mixed bag. I couldn't stop reading it because I wanted to know about the artists and of their lives and culture. And, yet, I felt disappointed that more wasn't made of Govier's author's license, her descriptive abilities and characterizations. On one hand I felt as if I were reading a bad art history thesis; and on the other, a novel that left me wanting more.

I do thank Ms Govier for adding the biographical section at the end of her book. Her notes on Hokusai being called the "Dickens of Japan," and that so many artists were inspired by his work; such as, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Toulousse-Lautrec, and Mary Cassat were of great interest and complemented her book. For musicians, I think it was good of her to note that Debussy was inspired to write "La Mer" by one of Hokusai's prints.

I also loved finding out that Oei's disappearance and and time are an unsolved mystery. I thought Ms Govier's handling of that portion of her novel was excellent!

So, in conclusion, I leave the ultimate decision about this book to those of you, as I've said, who love novels of eastern cultures. Japan is a wonderful place to read about, with a culture that invites love and curiosity. You will find your itch for that scratched with "The Printmaker's Daughter." As for the rest, it's for you to decide whether it matters or not to you!

3 1/2 stars, sadly since I wanted to love this novel.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Ms.pegasus Well written review for this perplexing novel. Supplementing your remarks about the characters, I never felt anything more than mild regret about any of the characters. I also felt a disconnect between the characters and the artwork. There was just this lack of emotional intensity; hard to explain about something that's missing rather than totally off. Thanks again for such an articulate review.

Evelyn Flynn The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has thousands of Ukiyo-e in its collections. At any one time only a tiny fraction are on display. Oei's work was on exhibit during the recent show on Hokusai. Hope you saw it!

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