The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert
Historical Fiction (with short Japanese culture) ; (288pgs)
So begins Kate Walbert's beautiful and heartbreaking novel about a woman, Ellen, coming of age in the long shadow of World War II. Forty years later she relates the events of this period, beginning with the death of her favorite cousin, Randall, with whom she shared Easter Sundays, childhood secrets, and perhaps, the first taste of love. When he dies on Iwo Jima, she turns to the legacy he left her: his diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto. Each one subtly influences her perception of her place in the world, the nature of her memories. Moving back and forth through time and place, Kate Walbert re-creates a world touched by the shadows of war and a society in which women fit their desires into prescribed roles. Unfolding in lyrical, seductive prose, The Gardens of Kyoto becomes a mesmerizing exploration of the interplay of love and loss. (from the book itself)
A lot of ambiguity with this book. To begin with, the title is a serious disappointment, in some places I have even read that it's 'misleading.' Whichever way you look it, it has very little effect to the book. It's supposed to reflect how the book, The Gardens of Kyoto, that Randall leaves for Ellen affects her whole life's perspective and how she perceives the world after learning about it. Contrary to that, the novel revolves so much around Ellen's life, and very little around the actual Gardens of Kyoto' effect on her or how she sees the world. So much so, that I lost interest in the book very quickly.
The prose is definitely elegant. If it wasn't for the way in which the book was written, I think I would have probably given up on reading the book. The writing guides your patience for the book, actually. Kate Walbert is truly a great writer, absolutely. For me, it was the topic and the structure of the book that left me half empty and half fulfilled. I was hoping for more chunks about Japanese culture as Randall had experienced during the war, and how The Gardens of Kyoto had a deeper meaning to the relationship between the Western Culture (ie. US) and Japan. I would have liked to see more interplay between 'the other' and the US in a time of War. Instead, I learned a LOT about Ellen's family in relation to Randal and much about her life as well, but few things about the influence of Japan on the US, her life, or even her vision of Randall as he left her The Gardens of Kyoto.
In any case, here are some thing worth remembering from the book. Ellen describes certain moments when she comes face to face with the Japanese culture, and the Japanese Gardens of Kyoto. The first moment that made an impression on me is at the beginning of the book when she talks about how America had done a fairly good job at establishing the vision of 'the other' by describing "the failings of the Japanese character," "crucifixions and tortures," "spoke a language no one could decipher," and "engaged in acts of moral deprivation." In all of this, they had forgot or purposely meant to keep the Gardens of Kyoto a secret.
Here are three things to know about the Gardens of Kyoto if you never read this book, yourself:
"Japanese garden was derived from the Shinto shrine and centers on the worship of kami, or spirits."
"There is a garden in Kyoto meant to be viewed at night in shadows. An emperor willed it so; he could only tour his gardens after dark, or perhaps it was that he could only tour his gardens with his mistresses after dark. I can't remember. The point is, the entire thing - the pathways, the fountains, the lakes, the cherry trees - is an illusion: colorless shadows without scent cast by large paper cutouts. A scene set from a drama created by the emperor's gardeners specifically to his wishes, changed for the seasons, rearrranged - bare trees for trees in full bloom, lakes with frothy waves, lakes still, blossoms far too large to grow in that climate."
"Tucked within one of the gardens of Kyoto is a shrine to unborn children, to lost children, to children too soon dead; a hidden alter, really, a stone on which women place azalea blossoms, or chrysanthemums; whole oranges, springs of cherry, offerings left in groups of seven, or five, or three: harmony, they believe, in odd numbers. The garden is in the northern end of Kyoto, within a heavily wooded area rarely visited by men; its temple, long ago carved from a stone hillside, is reached only by the ascension of a series of a small, narrow steps worn into the hillside, according to legend, by the knee of worshipers. Above the temple, Mount Hiei can be seen; the perspective is strange, the mount appearing close enough to touch, its snow so fresh and white as to be mistaken for new snow, though the snow has been frozen there for centuries."
And on a side note, here is something I stumbled on while reading another review. The Literary Corner Cafe says it really well, so I thought I'd quote this here and also let people know of this review as well. A wonderfully written review about this book, much more than I could do with this book. "The gardens in the title are a reference to Kyoto's famous Ryoan-ji Zen gardens, probably constructed in the late 15th century, and consisting of an arrangement of fifteen rocks on raked, white pebbles, situated so that only fourteen are visible at any one time, from any vantage point. (In Buddhism, fifteen designates enlightenment, and presumably, one would have to be enlightened in order to see the fifteenth rock. Seeing it from the air does not count; in the 15th century, they could no conceive of such a thing as seeing from the air.) As Randall, the owner of the book, The Gardens of Kyoto, puts it, the gardens are meant to be viewed from a distance, "their fragments in relation."