Samurai's Garden (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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The Samurai's Garden
Gail Tsukiyama, 1994
224 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2006

I worked up quite an appetite while reading this charming book—there's a fair amount of cooking and eating going on, and it made me hanker for some Japanese food.

There are also intriguing descriptions of Japanese decor: the exquisite airiness of shoji (paper walls) and the beauty of human artistry imposed on nature. This last has to do with the garden in the book's title.

Gardens are central to the novel's thematic concerns. They require loving devotion and constant nurturing, the very qualities that heal the human body and soul and provide respite from the world's ills. In this book those ills are physical, spiritual, and geo-political.

The story is set in 1937-1938 during Japan's invasion of China prior to World War II. Stephen, a young Chinese man, is sent by his wealthy family to their summer residence in Tarumi, a seaside Japanese village, to recover from tuberculosis. There his loneliness is eased by a growing friendship with Matsu, the family's crusty retainer who cares for the house, the garden, and Stephen. Through Matsu, Stephen becomes deeply attached to the denizens of a secreted village of lepers shunned and abandoned 40 years ago when leprosy swept through Tarumi.

Parallels abound in this book, between Stephen's situation and that of Matsu and Sachi, the leper whom Matsu loves. Illness and wellness are juxtaposed, and the peace and beauty of gardens placed against the brutality of war. The metaphors are obvious but not ham-fisted.

While Gail Tsukiyama's prose style is plain and unadorned, it feels right for a shy 20-year-old narrator, who is uncertain of both his present and future. He is after all Chinese living in Japan, a country that has just invaded his own.

See our Reading Guide for The Samurai's Garden.

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