Book Review – The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama follows a year in the life of Stephen, a young Chinese man whose family sends him to his grandfather’s beachside home outside the village of Tarumi in Japan, trading the rush and noise of Hong Kong for the quiet and solitude of Tarumi to aid in his recovering from illness. With his father nearby in Kobe, Stephen moves in with Matsu, the longtime caretaker of the house.

Quiet and unassuming, Matsu tends the gardens while Stephen rests. But as Stephen begins feeling better, he notices more about Matsu and through observation comes to know him and his story. Stephen learns about the traditional definition of honor and the courage it takes to go against one’s family and friends as he visits and works with Matsu in Yamaguchi up the mountain where lepers from all over Japan have created a village of their own.

The backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937-1938 adds another layer to Stephen’s experiences as he registers the villagers’ reactions. Is he an enemy or just an outsider and what will it do to the friendships he forges?

The Samurai’s Garden is a compelling but relaxing read. It doesn’t set out to shock or surprise the reader. Instead it tells the story at it’s own pace, leaving the reader to take or leave what it is saying. The story can teach the reader only if the reader is willing to be taught, one of the lessons Stephen himself learns.

Though the novel is told by Stephen in the form of a diary, the real story being told belongs to Matsu and Sachi, one of the lepers living in Yamaguchi and a childhood friend of Matsu. There are times when the worries about when he’ll return to Hong Kong can feel repetitive but it is in keeping with the journal structure. Similarly, his friendship with a young woman, Keiko, is far less compelling but true to the voice of the narrator. Many aspects of the novel that could be considered “weak” could also be seen as the finer points of character development in the narrator (and in this instance, that’s how they struck me).

Tsukiyama’s choices for everything from the language to the plot favored the simple over the complicated. The Samurai’s Garden wasn’t trying to be flashy or complex and it was more charming because of that.

The Samurai’s Garden was originally published in 1995. Her other works include Women of the Silk, Night of Many Dreams, The Language of Threads, Dreaming Water, and The Street of a Thousand Blossoms. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for these other titles after enjoying The Samurai’s Garden.

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