Ms.pegasus's Reviews > The Printmaker's Daughter

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier
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's review
Dec 12, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: art-history, japan, fiction, memoir-biography
Recommended for: anyone interested in Japanese wood block prints
Read in May, 2012 , read count: 1

Meticulous research has gone into this fictional memoir of Oei Katsushika, the shadowy artist-daughter of the famed Hokusai (1760-1849). His life spanned some 90 years and his works included the woodblock prints of the “Floating World,” the series “36 Views of Mount Fuji” and the “Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Some scholars believe much of the work attributed to Hokusai was actually done in part or in total by Oei. From these arguments, Govier has created an unconventional female character, talented but erased by both culture and history.

Govier wrestles with a number of dilemmas through her character. Given her talent, and the willing collaboration with her father, why didn't she sign her name to her own work, even after Hokusai's death. How did Oei feel about contact with the west, first with the Dutch and then, with the arrival of the American gunships? What compromises did she acquiesce to in pursuing the life of an artist over submitting to social conventions as a woman?

Accepting the credibility of a work of historical fiction is always subjective. A subtle combination of historical accuracy, locale, costume, attitudes, and diction sustain the mood. The problem is magnified when the historical setting is non-Western. That the main character is so radical a thinker was a further obstacle to be overcome. Oei no more blends into 19th century Japan than Georgia O'Keefe merged into the desert she inhabited. “I was the painter of intensity, not a native of that world,” Oei observes in painting the women of the Pleasure District.

For the first third of the book, I failed to feel that sense of historical immersion. The deference to male power and the observation that females were socially invisible seem overly precocious to be the thoughts of a young girl. It is only when Oei grows into adulthood that the story seems to develop a pulse. The family dynamic, her marriage, and her friendships as she ages are more expressive. My favorite part was the dual narrative between Oei and von Siebold. We experience their contrasting points of view instead of merely being told.

In many places, the writing failed to recreate the courtesan culture. Its simpering mannerisms and elaborate stylization failed to translate. Oei observes that styles change and women are forced to recreate themselves according to the current style. Again, the idea is there, but not the emotional force.

I felt bad about not liking this book. I wanted to. However, I'm glad that I read it because of the nonfictional elements. I'd heard of Hokusai. I'd never heard of Oei Katsushika, and her story deserves telling.

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