The Samurai’s Garden

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I was in this place on Sunday where I had three books started (or maybe four, considering I’d slowly been rereading The Catcher in the Rye…) and really really wanted to finish them. So this one came first on my list of books to finish. Originally started for class. Will have to go back and annotate more, both in quantity and in depth, later, but glad to know what happens at this point.

Stephen is a young man from Hong Kong who is attending university in Canton, China, when he falls ill with tuberculosis. Sent home and quarantined, he feels shut away from his best friend, King, not to mention his family, especially his younger sister Penelope/Pie. He finally convinces his father to let him take the journey to the family’s home in Tarumi, Japan, sooner than his father would have taken him and by himself.

In Tarumi, Stephen befriends Matsu, the solid, quiet gardener; Sachi, a friend of Matsu’s who also knows how it feels to be isolated; and Keiko, a pretty girl in town. As Stephen starts to embark on his own adventures in Tarumi and Yamaguchi, a small village in the mountains outside, he realizes just how intertwined the past is with the present, especially with Matsu, Sachi, Matsu’s sister Tomoko, and a mutual friend Kenzo. Seeing very much a bubble world, Stephen realizes some of the harshness of life that he hadn’t been exposed to before, and is sad to leave when the time comes.

This book was required for class, which meant that I didn’t pick to read it for me. That was okay; it just meant that my obligation to finish it was greater. (Could you even imagine me using SparkNotes? So impossible it’s laughable.) That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy bits of it, because I did, it just was not the most enjoyable imaginable.

Tsukiyama goes into complex detail about certain things, typically in clusters. The beginning, for example, had a lot of detail about everything. It got a bit tedious at parts for me because, while that’s all nice and good and can be done really well, it slowed the plot down quite a bit. Sure, it was meant to mirror how static Steven’s life was, how little was happening so he noticed the details, etc. It just didn’t work for me because I’m going, “If you’re so bored, why don’t you consider doing something then?”

Unlike a lot of other books I read, I didn’t have a favorite character, or a favorite part, really. That’s pretty unlike me to say that, especially given my human bias to favor one thing over another and then magnify both my like and dislike to the extremes. I didn’t have a favorite character, a favorite section, or a favorite topic that the book brought up- leprosy, suicide, illness and isolation from society, love, relationship histories. If anything, illness and isolation from society was the best-portrayed central theme (take into account when I write this that I really want to read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed right now too). But Tsukiyama doesn’t really provide hard facts on when historical events occurred, or what was happening during the period, or the types of illnesses and why they’re spread, or the reasons, from the character’s perspectives, for societal seclusion of the sick, or…. you get the idea.

The Samurai’s Garden is a three-star book. The plot deals as much with backstory as it does with what’s happening when the book is actually taking place, which is nice given that so many books choose one or the other, which sets Tsukiyama’s novel apart. Characters, including the narrator (who I found a bit self-congratulatory at parts), were not particularly unique from characters you see elsewhere, especially given the stereotypes that Tsukiyama chooses to have them defy. Set in a period ravaged with deep conflict, but with little involvement in it. It was okay, and just okay.

I have at least two more reviews coming, and should go read more Flannery O’Connor (I’m hooked from “Everything That Rises Must Converge”) and wean myself off “Emily Owens, M.D.” on Netflix before I have to go back to school on Monday.

Have fun reading!

Nicole

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