Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier

On Sale: 05/05/2010 Publisher: Harper Collins

Today I place in your cupped hands Katherine Govier's sumptuous novel, "The Ghost Brush", set in 19th century Japan or Edo as it was called then. Edo was under the rule of the Shogun, or more specifically the Tokugawa Shogunate. Society in the Tokugawa period, unlike the shogunates before it, was based on a strict class hierarchy. The daimyo, or lords, were at the top, followed by the samurai (warriors), with the farmers, artisans, and traders ranking below. Outside the four classes were the eta and hinin.  Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes.

Although prostitutes and entertainers were considered "Outsiders", an art emerged during this period that focused on the lives, fashions and aesthetics of courtesans and entertainers.  So, ironically, although prostitutes and their craft was looked down upon, people were interested in what they wore, how they spent their leisure time, their mannerisms etc. hence all the leading artists of the day could be found in Yoshiwara (the Pleasure District) painting away like their lives depended on what the courtesans did and indeed such was the case.

One of those artists was Hokusai ( best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s.  Ofcourse, these works came later and when the book opens Hokusai is a simple painter and a frequent visitor to the red light district where he takes his 10-year old daughter Oei for company and also to help him mix the paints he needs.

Growing up in adult company Oei grows to be a precocious (but not unlikeable little girl).  She soon strikes up a friendship with one of the courtesans (Shino).  Shino is a Lady that has been sent to the brothel as a punishment for insulting her husband.  It is through Oei's evenings with Shino that the reader is treated to what brothel life was like in Edo and the traditions, rituals and ceremonies that were a part of a courtesan's life.  Reading Katherine Govier's colourful and rich descriptions of life in Yoshiwara took me back to movies by the old Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, especially his movies "Osaka Elegy", "Sisters of the Gion" and "The Life of Oharu".

Anyway, so under her father's tutelage, Oei started to work on drawings of women. She illustrated manuals for female behavior-- etiquette, housekeeping, fashion, even childbirth. But even though she did all of that, she herself was a rebel and refused to conform to "appropriate" female behavior.  Although she was plain with a rather prominent jaw (not considered beautiful at all), she managed to have a lot of lovers as many men were attracted to her strong spirit. She drank and was addicted to her tobacco pipe, but no matter her flaws, she always remained Hokusai's dutiful daughter, helping her father with his commissions but never taking credit for any of them.  This is where the title originates from, Oei was Hokusai's "Ghost Brush".

Oei married one of Hokusai's students, and even though her husband doted on her, he just wasn't bright or intelligent enough for Oei.  One day she happened to laugh at one of his paintings and he "showed her the broom" which meant, he asked her to leave his home.  Oei wanted her freedom back but the only way she could get a divorce was to seek refuge at Tokeiji Temple aka the "Run-in Temple". It was said that when you saw a woman running in the area, you knew she was on her way to Tokeiji, likely being chased by her husband. When Oei returned home from the temple, a newly-divorced woman, she took over her father's studio because an attack of palsy rendered him unable to communicate via speech.

The only foreigners in Edo at that time were the Dutch.  Xenophobic as ever, Japan took a lot of pains to keep foreigners away.  Only a few Dutchmen (from the Dutch-East India Company) were allowed to trade and they were confined to Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor - a de facto prison for the dozen or so men permitted to live and work there. (It is rumoured that the Dutch were the only foreigners chosen to work in Japan because they were the only ones that agreed to stamp on their Holy Book).   Coincidentally, the hero of David Mitchell's new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" features one such Dutchman from Dejima. The book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, it will be interesting to see if it wins.

With Hokusai's speech affected by palsy it was left to Oei to meet with his patrons.  So when a Dutchman showed interest in buying some of Hokusai's art, Oei went to meet him and Govier cleverly uses their conversations as a narrative tool to share with the reader how the east and the west perceived each other at that time.

As the story moves on the reader will find herself or himself rooting for Katsushika Oei to come in to her own...with talent like hers it is unfortunate to have her hiding in her father's shadow and yet that time in Japan demanded that women be completely servile to the men.  Perhaps the most puzzling thing is that there was no coercion, women seemed to be willing partners in their own invisibility.

When a novelist will pluck a hero out of obscurity and tell the world about him or her, I feel as readers we owe them a debt of gratitude, so, Katherine Govier, here's a very big thank you to you! Your novel on the immensely talented Katsushika Oei is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

If historical fiction, art or 19th century Japan is your thing, please pick up a copy of "The Ghost Brush"... it is a captivating and beautifully-rendered saga of Japan, also, it is so rich with period effect that it makes a great candidate for a screen drama. While it may be historical fiction, let us also not forget that at the heart of it all is the story of incomparable love between a father and daughter.

Go here for a companion website to the novel, historical background, source material, and images from the work of Japanese printmaker Hokusai and his daughter Oei.

19 comments:

Dana said...

A great review for a wonderful book!

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Dana, so nice of you to say! I'm presuming you've read the book too? Have written a review? I would love to read it!

Veens said...

You know what, I am a regular reader of your blog :) But I am sorry I am not a regular commenting person here! :)
You know I read this book about Geisha by Aurthur Golden and all the controversy, I loved it! And I want to read this one as well. Golden's book opened up a whole new, beautiful world for me, and the thought that I would have never know about it but for his books - I am ever grateful to him :)

So I would love to read this one as well! God, when can I buy this one here :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Veens! That's alright if you can't comment on every post, I completely understand! I am just very happy everytime you visit! :)

I am so glad you mentioned "Memoirs of a Geisha", that was so beautifully written, wasn't it? I waited with bated breath for the movie but it was such a disappointment. Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" still occupies a place of pride on my bookshelf. I think you will love "The Ghost Brush"...I felt the same tingle of excitement, the same awe with Katherine Govier's book as I felt with "Memoirs of...", they both should be on every Japanophile's list.

RSA Certificate said...

Yes thanks for the review. Sounds like an interesting book, can't wait to read it!

Sanjay said...

Lotus, thank you for a wonderful review. You are so well versed about all things Japanese too!
As I read the review I wondered what ghost brush meant. Thank you for explaining that, what a wonderful title.
Would you comment on what to (not well read) me sounds like a contradiction. I thought Japanese men would have preferred their women a certain way. So wouldn't Oei's strong spirit be intimidating?
I merely theorize here about the lack of coercion for the invisibility of women. Perhaps there was some before, and as generations of daughters grew up they were likely easy to indoctrinate from a younger age? And society did the rest?
Were Oei and the the Dutchman in love or was he used as a mere metaphor for how the west may have been at that time?

Birdy said...

Delightful review! The book seems like a lush depiction of Edo. Well, I love historical fiction especially if it's not just about kings and queens. Books like these,which depict the society of those times are rare and if written well, then worth reading. Will put this on my list! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj! I think the men who were interested in Ooi for her spirit were the ones that didn't necessarily want to marry her. They admired someone feisty but just so long as they didn't have to deal with her for the rest of their lives! I think you know what I mean! :) I think many men like lovers or girlfriends with spirit or ones who won't cower down, but when it comes to a wife, their expectations are more traditional.

I think Ooi might have been slightly in love with the Dutchman and although he cared for her, I think his caring came from the fact that he was naturally drawn to most Japanese women (he felt pity for them). He was married to a Japanese girl whom he loved very much.

Lotus Reads said...

You said it Birdy...this is a wonderful Japanese saga and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know what life was like in Japan in its "Edo" days. Do get yourself a copy, I assure you you won't be disappointed.

Marilyn said...

That sounds like an incredible work...Angelique. Back after a sojourn through Zhongshan. I feel revived in so many ways. Glad to see you are still posting...

M

Happy Reader said...

Great review! I ought to read this, Angie. Had a chance to see Tokugawa's shrine, tomb etc when I visited Japan. Awe-inspiring places!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Marilyn! A warm welcome back my friend! How was Zhongshan? I hope you're still blogging as well? I'm going to check. I have missed you!!!!!!!!!!

Lotus Reads said...

CHitts, a warm welcome back to you too chica!!! Please,please tell me more about your trip! Japan is a country I would love to visit, but so far the opportunity hasn't presented itself.

Love and hugs!

Happy Reader said...

Angie: You sure should visit Japan! The Japanese Shrines, Temples and Zen gardens are totally out of this world! Ravishingly beautiful, a wonderful history too. I have learnt quite a bit about Japan during this trip. I can relate more to your review, now that I have seen some of it. It definitely helps! I am planning to write my travel blog with some interesting stuff I learnt. Will keep you posted. And, Did I mention what a gorgeous cover that was! I fell in love with that. In fact, I got a big bag (for my library use) from Japan with a similar painting on it. I can't wait to use it :)

Lotus Reads said...

Darling girl, please start the travel blog ASAP...books, travel and movies are all such big loves of mine, but especially travel! I want to learn everything you learned on this trip to Japan. Thanks for agreeing to share Chitts!!!

Susan A said...

I agree with Dana. What a beautifully-written review and a fabulous book jacket at that. I like your use of the English Language especially for this review and the creative supplement you added on in the form of the website. X

Lotus Reads said...

*blush* Thank you Suse! I wrote this particular review in a very unhurried fashion and that is how I gave it my best, also, the fact that is was a story that appealed greatly to me certainly didn't hurt the review! :) I'm glad you were able to read it and comment. Thank you! I will be visiting your lovely blog tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, it appears that Japanese art historians are seen to be second best because much of what is stated isn't based on documentation.

Also, in order to increase the profile of Hokusai's daughter is it really needed to make him so negative?

Kitchen Benchtops said...

This one sounds really interesting to me, and I think I would enjoy it. Thanks for sharing your review!