The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

In the fall of 1937, a young Chinese man named Stephen is stricken with tuberculosis. Despite the deteriorating political situation in eastern Asia due to Japan’s budding imperialism, Stephen is sent to a small Japanese village called Tarumi, where his family owns a summer house, to rest and recover from his illness. He is to be cared for by the family’s housekeeper, Matsu, a quiet and reserved man whom Stephen knows only as an acquaintance.

As the novel opens, Stephen has no reason to believe that his stay in Tarumi will be anything but relaxing, and he is looking forward to reading and painting, his two favorite hobbies. Soon after he arrives, though, it becomes clear to Stephen that there is more to Matsu than meets the eye. He becomes acquainted with two of Matsu’s old friends, named Kenzo and Sachi, and slowly begins to discover the secrets of their difficult past. As time passes, as he becomes immersed in Japanese life and culture, forges friendships with the enigmatic Sachi and Matsu, and participates in a romance, Stephen begins to feel more and more at home in Tarumi, a place that is at once turbulent and peaceful.

This book takes place against the backdrop of 1930’s Japan. At the time, Japan was fully industrialized and seeking dominance over its less modernized neighbors, especially China; this aggressive foreign policy was one of the contributing factors to Japan’s later involvement in World War II. The novel makes frequent reference to radio news reports- from both perspectives- of Japan’s victories over the Chinese army; it is interesting to see the contrast between the Chinese and Japanese reports of the same battles, underscoring the effect of bias in the media.

The people, food, dress, and customs of the vibrant Japanese culture were portrayed colorfully throughout the book, while the author’s sparse, clear prose beautifully evoked the clean, elegant style of Asian art and poetry. The plot was well-developed and reasonably interesting, incorporating an intricate storyline within a compact package. I was especially impressed by the complex characterization, which was well-executed and made the characters seem vivid and real.

Ironically, however, despite the fact that the novel is written in first person, the protagonist Stephen is remarkably underdeveloped compared to the other characters; his lack of any distinguishable traits is in sharp contrast to the richly layered personalities of the other main characters. The awkward, boring, and halfhearted romantic element of the story is unnecessary- I feel that the novel would be better off if the romantic subplot were replaced with actual development of Stephen as a character.

Despite its shortcomings, though, this book was a success. It was, a bit surprisingly, thought-provoking; the hardships described by the characters made me reflect on what I would have done in the same situations, and the descriptions of a beautiful culture immersed me. The writing style was unpretentious and refreshingly clean. Overall, it was a complex and detailed novel bound up into a deceptively small package. I award it four daggers.


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