Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Teahouse Fire

When I was nine in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to a foreign goddess and bowed twice. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.

The story of two women whose lives intersect in late-nineteenth-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire is also a portrait of one of the most fascinating places and times in all history - Japan as it opens its doors to the West. It was a period when one's choice of kimono could make a political statement, when women stopped blackening their teeth to profess allegiance to Western ideas, and when Japan's most mysterious rite - the tea ceremony - became not just a sacramental meal, but a ritual battlefield.

We see it all through the eyes of Aurelia Bernard, an American orphan who has just turned her back on the only family she has left: the abusive missionary uncle who has brought her along on his mission to Christianize Japan. One night in 1866, fleeing both her uncle and a fire that sweeps the city, she takes shelter in Kyoto's beautiful and mysterious Baishian teahouse, a place that will open entirely new worlds to her - and bring her a new family.

It is there where she discovers the woman who will define the next several decades of her life, Shin Yukako, the daughter of Kyoto's most important tea master and one of the first women to openly to teach the sacred ceremony known as the Way of Tea. Taking Aurelia for abandoned daughter of a prostitute rather than a foreigner, the Shin family renames her Urako and adopts her as Yukako's attendant and surrogate younger sister. Yukako provides Aurelia with generosity, wisdom, and protection as she navigates a culture that is not always accepting of outsiders. From her privileged position at Yukako's side, Aurelia aids her in her crusade to preserve the tea ceremony as it starts to fall out of favor under pressure of intense Westernization. And Aurelia herself is embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.

An utterly absorbing story told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire, is a lovely, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.

What I can say after such a blurb? Well, let's see...It's wonderful novel, the story is beautiful and compelling, the history is interesting and thought provoking, and I have incredible desire to learn more about a culture and nation that never really interested me much before. It's not my first time reading a novel set in Japan, I read Memoirs of a Geisha, but this book really brings the culture to light in my opinion. It makes me want to learn more and to experience the tea ceremonies.

I loved experiencing Aurelia/Urako's growth and discoveries. I felt that her confusion and her need to be accepted as more than a servant to be utterly understandable and painful as well. I'm glad I had tissues handy while I was reading this book, I used them often.

Although the story was wonderful with all the little twists and turns, I find that the true star was the setting. Japan in the midst of Westernization was a time confusion and of radical ideas, and the author brought out those emotions beautifully.

I first saw this book over Opalescent Essence and I cannot thank Carrie C. enough for reviewing, you can her review here. I loved it! I highly recommend The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery (5/5) Historical Fiction; Published: Riverhead Hardcover (12/06); Favorite Reads 2010; New Author; Year of the Historical (1); Books 2010 (6);


Linda said...

Great review! This is on my Fill In The Gaps list.

Leya said...

Thanks Linda! :) Will you be reading it soon? I would love to hear yours thoughts on it. :D

Happy reading!