Rating: 4 stars
I received a proof copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review.
I am a fan of historical fiction. I love the marrying of documented fact with the creativity of an author’s imagination. In a tiny way, what we write as narrative for museum exhibitions is a similar thing. We’re not allowed to go on full flights of fancy, but if there are gaps in the evidence, we use our broader knowledge to fill the story in. It’s our job to interpret history for visitors.
An historical novel is a different thing, of course. If an author is going to do a good job, they need to immerse themselves in the past that forms the basis to their story. They need to understand the politics, the social mores, the zeitgeist of the time. They might not tell us every little detail, but if their characters are to be more than modern people acting out scenes against the backdrop of an earlier era, if they are to truly convince us as people who lived in a different world to us, the author needs to have that well of context to draw from.
Lesley Downer is a journalist as well as a novelist. She has lived in Japan. She has written a book about Geisha life and history and a book about Japan’s first female actress, Madame Sadayakko. I read the latter and loved it, because Downer got under the skin of her subject and really brought her to life. Aside from a short story about Townsend Harris and the geisha who briefly lived with him, The Shogun’s Queen is the first of Downer’s fiction that I’ve read. It’s also the first in a series of books called The Shogun Quartet.
I am crazy about Japan. I’ve been there on holiday every year for the past seven years, so that I can drink the place in. I’ve started to learn the language. I’ve read histories of the country, sociological texts, Lafcadio Hearn’s memoirs. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m also not a subscriber to the idea that Japan is this insane neon world where technology is king and everyone sleeps in a maid café while playing Super Mario via the chip implanted in their brain. I’m about the deeper history of the place and how it came to be the society we in the West now puzzle at.
That’s a whole lot of preamble to say that my reading antennae are tuned to laziness when it comes to fiction by non-Japanese authors set in Japan. There’s nothing lazy about The Shogun’s Queen. From the prologue which introduces our heroine and the political times she is living in right through the drama-filled main plot, it’s clear that Downer has put in some serious legwork in understanding the period she writes within. The characters feel true. The enhancements Downer makes to whatever limited fact must be recorded about the characters in the official record feel natural. Downer also captures the atmosphere of the time, including little details about fashion, aromas, architecture, that help immerse the reader in the tale. There was a sense of woodblock prints being brought to life, and I was there with the characters on every page.
The book is a romance, but it’s also an adventure story and a political thriller. Okatsu is a feisty young woman who doesn’t always follow convention. From the start, when she is tasked with delivering a message to the corrupt local daimyo and he asserts his feudal right to effectively rape her, she keeps her head and finds a way to challenge him within the strictures of her social position. I knew I was going to like her from the way she handled this first challenge.
Downer’s prose is punchy where it needs to be, capturing the urgency and excitement of invasion and espionage. She understands drama and tension. I was utterly gripped by the action scenes at the start of the book where the Barbarians were approaching and Okatsu’s home town was plunged into chaos.
Equally, Downer knows how to nuance her writing so that the reader gets the sense of torpor that comes with a months-long journey from Kyushu to Edo. Living in palanquins, lodging at inns, far from familiar places comes across as something Okatsu, now known as Atsu, must endure at the behest of her new adoptive father. Downer always remembers that Atsu is a teenager. She is a composed young woman, aware of what is required of her, and a sharp thinker, but she is still impetuous. She finds it hard to accept the decisions made for her by her adoptive father and hard also to curb her tongue. Then, when the travelling party reaches Miyako (the old name for Kyoto), Atsu reveals her bookish teenage self, daydreaming about being a court lady at the time of Prince Genji. Those of us, teenage or otherwise, who have read Murasaki’s masterpiece of Heian court life and travelled to Kyoto will recognise Atsu’s reverie.
Atsu’s story is fascinating in what it reveals about Japan’s feudal society. To a greater extent, by the mid-19th century, Britain had left behind its feudalism, becoming a modern industrial nation no longer dependent on political alliances forged through strategic marriage to maintain power. Japan was still that nation in the years when Commodore Perry’s black ships brought Western influence to the country. Atsu is a pawn in a game of strategy, a means by which the Satsuma clan can infiltrate the nation’s powerhouse. For all that she is independently minded, Atsu knows that she has no control over her destiny beyond making the best of her situation. Blood counts for less than reliability in maintaining a dynasty, and adoption of strong characters who could further the ambitions of a clan was normal. That’s how Atsu comes to pass from her birth family to her uncle and then on to a high ranking Edo prince, before finally attaining the goal her uncle has set for her – marriage to the Shogun.
This fascinates me. When I read both Nakane’s Japanese Society and Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan, I learnt that, in the years following the restoration of the Japanese monarchy, the feudal power structures of the shogunate transferred to the economic system. Many clans became heads of business empires, and the system of adoption of a strong candidate into a family in order to maintain an advantage over competitors and secure longevity continued. For me, reading Atsu’s experience of just this practice made this book more than an historical romance set in Shogunate Japan.
Once she becomes Queen, Atsu’s work is cut out to influence the Shogun in matters of state and deflect him away from the influence of his mother. Downer fills the story with insights into how the Tokugawa court operated, and the role women played at the court. There is plenty of intrigue, and femininity is used as a tool to exercise power. It’s a variation on the theme of ‘behind every successful man, there stands a woman’, but within the context of the shogunate there is a validity to it. The women’s court is a powerhouse in its own right. The women there are educated in matters of state and aware that there is an influence that they can exercise over those who hold the conventional power. True, they are the possessions of men and are exercising influence in order to increase the power of those men, because that will mean their own position is more secure, but within that context the women are as intelligent and strategic as the men who possess them.
The battle for influence over the Shogun between Atsu and her mother in law goes back and forth like a baseline rally in tennis. Just as Atsu seems to make progress with the Shogun, his mother pulls some manipulative trick. There was a little too much back and forth for my liking. I’d rather a 400 page novel that maintains its crispness to one that tries to spin out the suspense to fill more pages. That was the only thing I would change about the book. There’s only so much jeopardy a story can sustain.
Eventually the Shogun makes his choice and things take the path that history records. The treaty with America is signed, opening Japan up to foreign trade. A power vacuum forms at the heart of the court, which is filled by lords loyal to the emperor, paving the way for the restoration. Atsu resolves herself to a life spent fighting the new Regent. It seems as though life has other plans for her, as though, after all the adventure and political scheming, romance will win the day. Atsu stays true to her Shogun, though. Romance of a deeper kind.
Downer’s tale is an embroidering of history, an imagining of what might have gone on behind the palace doors, in the secrecy of the Shogun’s court, but it’s a rippingly told yarn, steeped in fact, and every bit as good as other historical romances with a literary bent.
The Shogun’s Queen is published in November. The other books in the quartet are already out, and on the strength of this outing I’ll be taking a look.