Yesterday, the ladies and I met at the BPL to discuss The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. It was an interesting discussion in that it was the first time all 15 of us loved the book, yet we still had plenty to discuss. Sometimes, when everyone likes the book, it is hard to find more to say than, "I liked this," and then everyone agrees; however, with this slim, but thoughtful novel, Tsukiyama had us all trying to talk at the same time.
First, here is the plot from Reading Group Guides to get us started:
On the eve of the Second World War, a young Chinese man is sent to his family's summer home in Japan to recover from tuberculosis. He will rest, swim in the salubrious sea, and paint in the brilliant shoreside light. It will be quiet and solitary. But he meets four local residents - a lovely young Japanese girl and three older people. What then ensues is a tale that readers will find at once classical yet utterly unique. Young Stephen has his own adventure, but it is the unfolding story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo that seizes your attention and will stay with you forever. Tsukiyama, with lines as clean, simple, telling, and dazzling as the best of Oriental art, has created an exquisite little masterpiece.I also want to mention who helpful I found the book discussion guide on this title prepared by the Skokie Public Library was to me as I led this discussion. Click here to access it. It has questions and then notes on possible answers and further discussion points. Thanks for sharing guys.
Now on to our discussion:
- Everyone was excited to discuss the book so we began with some general thoughts. People called it poignant, and thoughtful; they were struck by the inner turmoil contained in the story. One person said she appreciated how in what has become an increasingly hectic world, this novel calmed her.
- We began talking about the unique setting of the novel. Stephen is a Westernly raised child in 1938 Hong Kiong, a British City. He identifies as Chinese, but his family has a deep connection to Japan due to their family's import-export business and their summer home on the Japanese coast where the entire novel takes place. I told the group abut Tsukiyama's own three part identity as half Chinese, half Japanese, but American raised. We appreciated how Stephen was our eyes to the new culture. While he had visited Tarumi before, until the year (plus) which he spends there trying to recover from TB, Stephen has never really understood the town and culture.
- We moved onto Sachi and her story. I don't want to give too much away because much of the joy of reading this novel is in how the details about Sachi and Matsu slowly unfold over the course of the novel. It is with great anticipation which the reader and Stephen wait for and earn the right to sit back and hear Sachi's full, heart breaking tale in her own words. However, we do know that she lives up the mountain from Tarumi in the town of Yamaguchi. It is filled with lepers and Matsu, the man who tends Stephen's family home, is the man from the outside who keeps them supplied.
- We spent some time breaking out the title. The obvious samurai who has a garden is Matsu. First I clarified what a samurai is in the non-war sense; it is close to being a synonym for chivalry. It is a man of honor who serves with fidelity and thinks of himself above all others. Matsu, with his selfless care of the lepers and his dedication to Stephen's family makes him the ultimate samurai. Ironically, he seems to be a pacifist, or at least against the Japanese aggression against the Chinese. The garden he tends is beautiful. It is how he expresses himself; we even said it symbolized imagination. It inspires Stephen to paint again. It brings people together. But we also talked about how Sachi could be seen as a samurai. Her garden in contrast to Matsu's has no flowers. When she first moves to Yamaguchi, she cannot bare to see beauty as her own beauty was being ravaged by leprosy. Yet, her rock garden is also beautiful, inspirational, and soothing.
- This led us to Stephen. Since the entire book is told through his diary entries (more on that below), how is he a samurai and what does the garden mean to him? Stephen begins the story as a spoiled young man. He is selfish and restless. His forced isolation from his friends, family, and even from the war raging at home forces him to let go, relax, slow down, think about life, and find peace. His inner turmoil is best reflected in how toward the beginning of the novel he cannot see the beauty in Sachi's garden, but as he grows and learns, he comes to understand how amazing it truly is. It also takes some time for him to be able to appreciate the obvious beauty of Matsu's garden before he can capture it in a painting.
- We talked about how the book begins with Stephen's blank pages which he filled during his time in Tarumi and ends with the blank books Matsu gives him to record the rest of his life's story. His evolution as an artist, both painter and writer, are well documented here.
- A quick break from the story: someone mentioned that reading about how the lepers were treated reminded her of the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America.
- Many of the characters here underscore the overall theme of isolation and loneliness. Isolation saved Sachi from having to kill herself, Matsu found comfort in his solitude, and while isolation and the resulting loneliness came with difficulty to Stephen, without it he would not have healed physically, and he would have not have be able to grow from a boy into a man. He begin the novel longing to go home and ends leaving only reluctantly. If it was not for the war, he might have stayed in Tarumi much longer.
- We moved on to the style of the book. There are three main issues here. This novel has been called a "poetic narrative;" it reads closer to a poem than a novel at times. It is also written completely as Stephen's diary entires. And, finally, it follows with the seasons. Specifically from Autumn 1938 back to Autumn of 1939. Some general comments about the style: restful, contemplative, graceful, soothing, mesmerizing. One participant said the story was written like a garden: as we moved through the seasons, the story and the characters open up, bloom, and show us their full potential. No one was bothered by only getting Stephen's story. We liked how he earned the pieces of Matsu and Sachi's stories. He recounted their words and feelings to us. We felt it was a more satisfying reading experience to go through Stephen to get their stories. It is what kept us reading; uncovering the secrets behind these people. Hearing it directly from Matsu and Sachi would not have been as satisfying to us.
- The cyclical nature of the story, also made the open ending satisfying. Even my readers who hate open endings, liked this one (ends with Stephen leaving to go back to a war torn China). They attributed it to how the novel was like a circle. It starts to go back around again, with a new Autumn coming. The story of these people will continue, but their time together has ended. All will be changed by the experience, for the better too, but the circle will keep going without them. The comfort of the seasons changing is a nice contrast to the horrible war going on just outside of the confines of the story too.
- I ended the conversation asking who the villain of this novel was? We agreed that this book oddly, has no villain. There are people we did not like (Stephen's parents, Kenzo, Keiko's dad) but no villain who propels the conflict. So that led to a discussion of the conflict in this book. Ideas that people offered: illness, fear, growing-up, inner turmoil, secrets, cultural differences. Someone summed it up well: the story is propelled by Stephen's mental and physical struggles. We were all interested to see how compelling we found this book despite its lack of a villain.
Readalikes: There are many places you can go to find a reader a book similar to The Samurai's Garden. First, I want to mention that one participant loved this novel so much that she has gone on what she is calling a "Tsukiyama bender," reading all of her books. She shared that while Tsukiyama's novels range in topic, they all share a similar style and tone to The Samurai's Garden. Her praise led another participant to add Tsukiyama to her "Holds Without Hassle" automatic holds list.
If you want to read more Japanese literature by native Japanese writers or Japanese Americas which also have a graceful, lyrical, and thoughtful style and tone I would suggest, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (which also addresses how illness isolates people), When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (WWII, Japanese internment in US), and Deep River by Shusaku Endo (search for spirituality and peace).
If you are interested in more books with a graceful and thoughtful style with similar themes, but not necessarily written by a Japanese author, I would suggest Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (isolation, forced to slow down, reflective, lyrical, artists) and Snow Falling on Cedars by Davis Guterson (WWII setting, Japanese internment, thought-provoking, reflective). Both books have Japanese characters in them, but none are set in Japan or written by Japanese authors. These titles make for an interesting comparison to Tsukiyama's novel. For the record, Bel Canto is one of my all time favorite books.
If you want to read more about the Japanese atrocities against China during the years leading up to WWII, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is widely considered the best fictional treatment on the subject, however, while Tsukiyama's book is sparse, Murakami's tone is complex, layered, even purposely confusing at times. For a nonfiction treatment on the subject, I would suggest the well reviewed The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang. This book is widely available at public libraries.
For those who want to know more about leprosy, especially in the modern world, I would suggest Disease Apart: Leprosy in the Modern World by Tony Gould. It is heart-breaking to know that the lepers in Yamaguchi are living in a time only a few short years before the discovery of the drugs that can cure them.
And finally, for those who want a book that looks into the mind of another young artist as he emerges into adulthood, there is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I think is Joyce's most accessible novel.