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Tales of the Otori

otoriLet’s just say that since having a tiny tot in my life, I haven’t been devouring books at the same pace I used to.

Correction–I’ve been reading more books than ever. Sometimes up to a dozen a day. But they have titles like “The Best Mouse Cookie” and “Rosie’s Walk,” “This Rabbit, that Rabbit” and “Good Night Moon.”

I mean, I’m all about the cow jumping over the moon, the light and the red balloon–even, in fact, the bears on chairs and the kittens and mittens. But the main pleasure there isn’t as much the stories as the small fuzzy head leaned against me and the small fat hand turning the pages, the little index finger pointing enthusiastically at the trendy rabbit and the bendy rabbit . . . aaaah.


Anyway, for a walloping good story I need to go elsewhere. One of my coworkers recently recommended a series called Tales of the Otori. Since this was the same guy who had recommended Gail Tsukiyama and Peace Like a River (which are a-mazing), I knew this series had to be good. Starting with “Heaven’s Net is Wide,” within a matter of chapters I was drawn into an incredible world. Set in something like medieval Japan, the author Lian Hearn has made a rich, fully encompassing backdrop for an epic story which I do not want heronto ever, ever end. The details are vibrant, the language poetic, and the plot surprising. Many times I thought, “oh, this is where she’s taking the character.” And then I was wrong–oh so wrong.

The basic story: Otori Shigeru is the heir to his kingdom. However, after the cruel ruler of the country to the East conquers him in a battle won by treachery, the Three Countries are submerged in a dark, violent time. Shigeru adopts an attitude of defeated submission and waits patiently for many years until the time when he can reclaim his inheritance. As he secretly plans his revenge, he adopts a youth named Takeo, who has been brought up among the Hidden, a spiritual people who denounce killing of any kind and worship a God whose name they do not speak. But Takeo also has Tribe blood in his parentage. The Tribe is a clan of spies and assassins with extraordinary skills, who hire themselves out to the warlords and embrace lives of violence and betrayal for their own gain. With these two conflicting identities battling in him, Takeo becomes the key to Shigeru’s plan to rescue his people from tyranny and kill the man that brought about his downfall, Iida Sadamu. Sadamu, in fear of assassination attempts, has surrounded his chambers with a nightingale floor, constructed to sing at the fall of every human step.

There are elements of fantasy–people of the Tribe with super-acute hearing, the ability to become invisible for minutes at a time and that type of thing–but in a restrained manner so that you find the whole thing totally believable. There is love, revenge, beauty and squalor, and the story carries you through multiple generations of the Otori family. There is some sex but it’s never (in my opinion) gratuitous. There’s some violence too, but also not gratuitous as I sometimes found it in books like The Pillars of the Earth.

I’m just beginning the final book in the series, “The Harsh Cry of the Heron,” and I’m already mourning the end.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I’ve been a little afraid of writing this book review. Why? Because I love the book so much, and I don’t think I can convey how awesome it is without reproducing the entire thing here for you to simply read directly.

The front of my edition calls it “darkly comic” and that is oh-so-accurate. To that I would add evocative, beautiful, poignant, understated, humorous, heartbreaking, original.

I first read this book by accident. I had just won a prize for the best short story in my grade–I think I was in 9th grade at the time. The prize was a gift certificate for 12,000 pesetas (about $120) at a bookstore. So I went, and I shopped with a spontaneity that only free money could allow. I bought this book because the title and cover drew me in (it was called “Entre bastidores” in the Spanish translation) and fell in love with it.

Then I went to college, and spotted the book in its original English at the college bookstore. It was used, and cheap–I snatched it up. And I fell in love with it again. I recently re-read it, and realized that I needed to blog about it immediately.

The narrator, Ruby Lennox, starts speaking at the moment of her conception, with the exclamation “I exist!” The writing is realistic and revelatory of human nature in its details, but it blends in almost magical elements seamlessly, such as the case of Ruby being able to speak to us from the womb. Don’t get me wrong–this book isn’t part of the South American magical realism genre–it’s something totally different. In its own class, in my opinion.

In between Ruby’s accounts of daily life in York living above the pet shop with a philandering father and a mother who takes out her rage by cleaning obsessively, there are chapters that spin off into the past. Ruby may come across an old button that’s been kicking around in the attic, or her mother may use a particular expression that her own mother used, and with these tidbits as springboards, an omniscient narrator segues into a tale about one of Ruby’s ancestors. Like her great grandmother, who ran off with a traveling photographer one hot and dusty night. Or her grandmother, losing her lovers to the war and alienating her sister. Her aunt, who hopped on a boat to America with her fatherless baby. Her own mother, trying desperately to be interesting, beautiful, and plucky, but ending up in a marriage that has her butting her head up against the walls of her own soul.

As Ruby grows up with her two older sisters–the know-it-all, melancholy Patricia and the bossy and attention-getting Gillian–she realizes little by little that there’s a family mystery she has been exluded from. Shadowy memories and evasive answers eventually drive her to find out what exactly she has lost.

When I finish this book, my heart aches. It ached so much this time around that I went and wrote a song, which maybe one day I’ll share with you here. Kate Atkinson is an incredible writer, and this book is one of my favorites of all times.

If you like her style, her novel “Human Croquet” is also fabulous, with the narrator/main character slipping in and out of time. In all her works, Kate Atkinson gravitates towards the themes of motherhood, the loss of loved ones, the bond of sisters, and the mystery of memory. I hope you enjoy her work as much as I do!