Author: Katherine Govier
Genre: Fiction (Japan / 19th century / Printmaking / Calligraphy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (11/22/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young woman with exceptional artistic talent subsumes herself out of loyalty to her father.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I don't think so. It's sort of ambigu-Japanese without telling us anything about the story, plus I think there's something odd about the woman's arm, like it was accidentally Photoshopped out. It's...spindly. (I vastly prefer the Canadian version.)
I'm reminded of...: Tracy Chevalier, Arthur Golden
First line: "Hey, you! You with the big chin! Oei!
Do... I love/hate novels about forgotten women artists?: YES. I wish more hist fic would taken on these fabulous forgotten figures, rather than churning out more Tudor-fic. I hate them only because it frustrates me to see talented women diminished and demeaned simply because of their gender/sex!
Did... I love seeing Katherine Govier's hist fic rec list at GoodReads?: YES. Only two novels I recognized; the rest are (happily) new to me!
Do... I wish the novel kept the Canadian title, The Ghost Brush?: YES. I definitely think it better captures Govier's central thesis and theme.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- buy if you're a slow reader as this is a nice chunkster at 494 pages!
Why did I get this book?: The unusual setting.
Review: I couldn't be more unfamiliar with 19th century Japan, but from the first page, Govier plunks the reader in the rich, seedy, struggling world of Edo, where the common people are forbidden to own pictures, maps, or books, and artists make catalogs of courtesans and paint Westerners in secret. Our narrator is Oei; her father is Katsushika Hokusai, creator of the iconic print 'The Great Wave at Kanagawa'. A complicated, tempestuous figure, Hokusai was a prolific artist as well, living well into his 90s. He's renown for his output, his focus on the commoners, and his myriad of artistic styles.
But the novel isn't about Hokusai, not exactly; the story is about Oei, her relationship with her father, her artistic talents, and her loyalty. It's also a novel about Edo in the early 1800s -- talk about place as character! -- and the connection between inspiration, loyalty, and love. Govier's central thesis is that Oei was the 'ghost brush', completing many of the works her father got credit for, and her novel follows Oei's life from childhood to adulthood.
I found the writing a little uneven and book a smidge too long (at 494 pages, it includes a 24-page Afterward that is marvelous -- probably my favorite part of the whole book -- but some of the sections went on and on...). Grovier's writing overall is nice: easy, flowing, descriptive but not ornate, chock full of detail without feeling like a lecture. As sex workers are a major part of the story, I found her portrayal of them and their work very human and realistic, earthy without being salacious. Even better, I thought she conveyed accurately the mores of a society that accepted paid courtesans and created characters that seemed authentic, real, and people to whom I could relate.
However, I hated the way Govier used accents in the story; I found the rural courtesans nearly incomprehensible, and while that's what she was trying to convey, it really pulled me from the story as I found it super clunky and awkward.
"Your old man'z an artist? We usta have one here watchin' our every move," said Fumi. "We were, like, pozen all the time. He watched how we dressed and when we played our music and when we looked at the moon -- evrythin'. But he duzn come here anymore. Maybe he'z, like, scared he'll get fined or go to jail"--here her face became tragic--"or end up on the White Sands or even, like, banished. Can you 'magine? Jus' for painting us. It'z 'cause we're so evil." (page 51-52)That quibble aside, this is a chunky historical fiction that stands out for the unusual setting and non-royalty characters. For those who like fiction about the making of art, I highly recommend this -- and for anyone who enjoys the process of crafting a novel, you must check out Govier's marvelous Afterward. It makes me want her to write a book about writing this book!
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Printermaker's Daughter to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 12/23.