Saturday, September 6, 2014

"The Samurai's Garden" by Gail Tsukiyama

Critique #2 for the Travel the World in Books Readathon.

With this book, my expectations were pretty low. I'd never heard of it before, but had to buy it because the title sounded intriguing. Let me clarify: there are no samurais as characters in this book- besides maybe some metaphorical ones.

This book starts in September of 1937, during the very beginning of Second Sino-Japanese War (basically Japan invading and attacking China). This later became part of World War II, but the book only covers until 1938, so we don't get to see it. Instead there is an interesting view of the very start of what turns out to be a gruesome conflict, through the eyes of a young man who is technically behind enemy lines.

The Plot:
Chinese student Stephen is sent to the small tourist village of Tarumi, Japan to recover from tuberculosis because of fears he may infect his little sister. Growing up in Hong Kong, he's come to value the noise and bustle of the big city, as well as the access to people. But in the quiet of Tarumi, he discovers people and stories that may end up defining him.

It's hard to explain the greatness of this little, unassuming book accurately, so bear with me. Although the chapters (or days) are segmented and split up into little vignettes, the story isn't choppy- it has an incredible flow to it. A lot of the tales this book has to tell are universal truths, and one could almost be called a fairy tale (the pearl diver's daughter). None of the subjects in the book seem out of place, despite it covering a lot of ground on themes: growing up, accepting your parents as people and not paragons, discrimination, suicide, and honoring your family.

The characters are what really make this book, besides the stories being exceptional. Once again, I've come across a historical fiction dealing with leprosy, but in this case it's not the main protagonist who is afflicted. In this book, the protagonist is almost a secondary character or the narrator, while the caretaker for his grandfather's beach house, Matsu, along with Matsu's friend Sachi befittingly steal the spotlight.

Another thing to note is I didn't want to stop reading this book. When I came to the last thirty pages I became increasingly restless- and despite the ending being thoroughly enjoyable I didn't want to stop reading. What happens to Stephen and the rest of the characters when WWII finally arrives? Do they survive? Will the beautiful gardens still be there when the war has come and gone?

The Samurai's Garden is one of the most lovely and placid books I'll read this year, and it almost breached the five star club- it's simply that good. The only issues I had with it were a matter of length- I simply wanted just a bit more- maybe even an epilogue would have sufficed. Although I think a little more conflict would naturally occur between the villagers and Stephen, especially after his brother writes him a letter about the Rape of Nanking, I would call this book the calm before the storm. 

If you're searching for a small book that just about anyone can enjoy, and just about anyone can relate to, this is it.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars for a beautifully written small book that leaves you wanting more!

Content: Ages 16+ for heavy topics of suicide, loss, racism, adultery, and war.

Page Count: 211 pages in my paperback edition.


  1. I am reading Unbroken and it covers the beginning of WWII. I didn't know much about Japan's reason for starting the war so it was interesting and heartbreaking to learn of their motives for suppressing the chinese, neighboring countries and the attack on pearl harbor. I enjoy historical fiction so this sounds like one I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing. Great job reading and reviewing during the Readathon!

    1. Yeah, the focus with this one is more the Japanese way of life with less emphasis on the war, but I really like that the war was simply a background piece, even though I wish I had a bit more closure. It's always interesting to read about a time when any news was heard via radio or the newspaper or letters from your family, not blared over the tv.
      I'm having a lot of fun with this Readathon and visiting a lot of new blogs, which is always a good time- thanks for hosting it!
      ~Litha Nelle

  2. This book sounds really interesting I'll definitely put it on my reading list! I've read a lot of ww2 fiction and non-fiction this year due to classes and I'm hooked on the topic. On the same subject I actually read The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang earlier this year and it was really eye opening and heartbreaking. It really was an incredible time period.

    1. This book is an interesting take on the events leading up to it- Stephen doesn't listen to the radio, and instead learns through letters about what's happening in his country. I really loved it, but it has a semi-unresolved ending that drove me insane because you get so attached to the characters. Still, it's an incredible little book that I recommend to pretty much anyone.
      Thanks for commenting!
      ~Litha Nelle


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