Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier

Title: The Printmaker’s Daughter
Author: Katherine Govier

Genre: Fiction (Japan / 19th century / Printmaking / Calligraphy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (11/22/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
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!

*** *** ***


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.


  1. I've followed Japanese culture for years and this book was an insightful and exciting read for me. I have to agree that the title The Ghost Brush and the Canadian cover were so much better than the copy shown here.
    I can also recommend Govier's Three Views of Chrystal Water, about a girl who becomes a pearl diver in Japan. I am eager to read more of her ten novels. She deserves a wider readership. Thank you for reviewing The Printmaker's Daughter and reminding me of a delightful reading experience.

  2. @Sandra: I'm always apprehensive when Westerns take on 'exotic' cultures so I was pleased to find Govier's handling of 19th century Edo and the more salacious aspects of life there to be very even and mundane (in a good way!). She's new to me but I'll be looking for her other books now!

  3. Sounds like an emotional read.

    I agree with your thoughts on the cover. Her arm does look strange. lol

    Thanks for the giveaway. :)

  4. It seems we had similar reactions to this one! I agree it was too long, and it was rather uneven for me. I loved parts of it but was bored by more of it. You're absolutely right about the accents too! I didn't articulate it, but that did distract me from the actions. Also, the Canadian title and cover are so much better! I'm still hoping you'll flat out love a book soon...

  5. I have this sitting in my NetGalley queue waiting to be read. I haven't felt the need to read this but your review has me once again intrigued. I'm excited to see how she handles Edo Japan - it's a fascinating time and culture.

    I also have to admit I vastly prefer the Canadian title and cover as well.

  6. I think the accent thing would really annoy me! Same with too many foreign words.

    I'm not sure if it's good that afterwords are the best thing in a book lol.

    But it still sounds interesting and thank you for the review!

  7. Now all i could do was to stare at that arm and it is way too tiny. Not good at all

  8. It sounds very interesting and I would Love to win it! Thanks for the opportunity.

  9. Sounds very interesting. I had seen this one around a little bit recently and was intrigued. I haven't read anything set in Japan. I am familiar with The Great Wave - very cool sounding story. Thanks for the review.

  10. You did a wonderful job with this review, and I found myself nodding along and agreeing with everything you said here. It was long, and weirdly stumbling at times, and I HATED those accents, but of course, there were parts of the book that I loved as well. I was in turns fascinated and bored by this book, so I wasn't quite sure what to make of the whole. I do have to agree that the author's notes were wonderful though! Fantastic review today!

  11. I always find it a bit contrived when authors write foreign accents in a language different than the ones the book's been written in. Does that make sense?

    Isn't it strange that Govier is writing in English an accent of a rural Japanese courtesan?

    On the other hand, how would she best convey, their "difference-ness"?

  12. This book has been on my wish list since I first heard of it a couple of months ago. I know it hasn't always been well-received and might be a bit of a struggle to read. But I'm still intrigued and really appreciate the chance to win a copy. Thanks for your review and for hosting the giveaway.

  13. this sounds very interesting even if overly long and using those accents that drive me crazy.

  14. I'm tempted to read the Afterward first, after your review :)
    At nearly 500 pages this one is an investment -- while I love historical fiction, and like reading about lesser-used time periods like this one, I'm not all that well-versed in matters pertaining to art, so I'm not sure if this would keep my interest.

  15. I really wanted to read this book! I love historical fiction and this book has been on my to read list.

  16. Sounds like you have quite a few new titles on your TBR pile from this author's recommended reading list. I love discovering new books that way!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour Audra.

  17. Great review. I just finished this and really enjoyed it. I'm also a big fan of the Ghost Brush as a title rather than the American one.