Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The Gardens of Kyoto," by Kate Walbert

When I wrote (6/13/12) about Kate Walbert’s 2009 novel “A Short History of Women,” I noted that despite the title, I was not initially drawn to the book, but once I read it, I liked it very much. I have just had essentially the same experience with her 2001 novel, “The Gardens of Kyoto” (Scribner). But once I started reading it, I liked it even more than the other novel. It is,in fact, a wonderful, very original novel. The main character, Ellen, looks back on her life forty years earlier, during and after the WWII years; because the narrative moves back and forth in time, it is (as clearly intended by the author) at first a bit difficult to keep track of the varying characters, plot lines, and perspectives. So there is a sense of mystery, even foreboding at times. The novel begins with the line “I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima.” Ellen and Randall had a very special relationship from childhood, being two very bright and nonconforming children and adolescents. That he died at age 17 is the tragedy of the book. But there are other tragedies, other deaths, and other terrible results of the war, not only for those who fought, but for those who loved them. The main characters are Ellen’s and Randall’s family, but there are other important characters, such as another soldier Ellen fell in love with after Randall’s death, one who is charming but damaged. There are also secrets about Randall’s family and parentage, which involve bringing in another character, Ruby, and her plot line. Various other topical issues arise, including domestic violence and slavery (Randall’s house had been a place for slaves on the underground railway to the north to stay). But these never feel didactic; they are organic parts of the story. The reason for the title, “The Gardens of Kyoto,” is too complicated to explain here, but suffice it to say that it is related to the war and to what is truly important in life, but has only a peripheral place in the novel's sites and plot lines. Ellen and Randall especially are compelling characters, and readers are drawn into their stories. Reading this novel provides an intense sense of being immersed in the drama of life. Most of all, it is beautifully written. I highly recommend this novel.

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