Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier — 512 pgs

Based on the legends of the “ghost brush,” this historical fiction novel set in eighteenth century Japan tells the life story of Oei, the nontraditional daughter of master painter and artist Hokusai. From the time Oei is a young girl riding on her father’s shoulders, she’s been taught the secrets of his art and ways. Leaving the rest of his family behind and traveling from village to village with Oei, Hokusai is ever changing his art to avoid conflicting with the censors who seek to dominate the populace. As Oei grows up surrounded by prostitutes, fellow artists and the students who follow her father like a god, she becomes increasingly talented and more and more recalcitrant to follow the Japanese dictates for women. As she becomes a great artist in her own right, she eschews formal relationships and takes on many of the characteristics of the wayward women whom she befriends, also learning to be both similar and very different from her father. But when her father is cut down by illness, Oei’s only choice is to become “the ghost brush” and continue her father’s work. Oei learns to surpass the master to whom she is loyal but can never be revealed as the artist she truly is. As Oei struggles with her art and her fellow artists, she also become increasingly confused by the loyalty tinged with hostility and repugnance she feels for her father. Endlessly toiling as her father’s assistant, Oei learns the ways of the world are not synonymous with the ways of her heart, and before long she begins to not only fade into the background but to puzzlingly come forward and shine in secret as well. In this captivating and epic tale of two of Japan’s greatest painters, Govier gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of the woman behind the man who made his name not only in Japan, but all over the world through the use of his brushes and ink.

I was puzzled by my reactions to this book. Normally this would be the type of book I devoured in only a few sittings, but there was something about the rhythm of the story that impeded me from becoming fully invested in the tale. There were certain junctions where the story sharply veered off from what had been expected, and I was at first a little confused and then perturbed at how the flow of the tale was being diverted in such a strange way. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of the book that were just brilliant, and some of the scenes were written with such precision and skill that I got lost in them, but then the thread would be lost and I would be left stumbling through passages that were a lot less interesting. Carrie over at Nomadreader says it all so much more succinctly and concisely in her review, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to read it.

Call me a heathen, but the best parts of the book for me were the illicit looks into the brothels and the secret lives of the prostitutes. I guess I’m just fascinated by things like this, because for some reason, these parts were immensely readable and utterly absorbing. I was a little turned off that Oei was so young when she started being exposed to such things, but I began to believe that this was a byproduct of the time and the society in which she lived, and though it made me a little angry, I was also interested in seeing how she would react to it all. I also really liked the descriptive qualities of Govier’s writing when it came to describing the art that Oei and her father were creating. I could almost see the paintings she was describing, and it was interesting to get the added infusion of the supposed emotion that was behind the art the two were churning out. There was a lot of detail and piquancy to the writing which I really enjoyed, and despite the meandering way of the plot at times, I did enjoy certain  aspects of the book very much.

One of the main themes which was constantly in play in this book was loyalty. Oei’s loyalty to her father was something that was explored in depth and with great skill by the author. The impression I got was that the more Oei’s loyalty grew, the more quickly she became subsumed in her father’s desires, fame and image. It was impossible for a woman of that time to be known as a great artist, and in some ways I think Oei’s collaboration with her father was both a help and a hindrance to her. She lived in obscurity so he could live in the light, and the more she gave up for him, the more he expected her to give. I thought he was very childlike in his pursuit for recognition and adoration. Frankly, he was a very selfish man, and by taking the best years of Oei’s life in the service of his art he demonstrated his inability to love anyone other than himself. This was a recurring theme. Hokusai valued himself alone, and though Oei grumbled about him and held resentment towards him, she truly did love him and did everything in the service of their shared art: the art that he would get all the credit for.

Another plot element I found interesting was the role the government played in society. These men ruled through violence and fear, and they were constantly changing the strictures when it came to which types of art it was acceptable to create and sell, and which would bring punishment. This left artists at loose ends and constantly having to change their styles and subjects, which is one of the reasons they were so poor. By keeping them off kilter all the times, they were ensuring that no one other than the officials had influence in the community. Hokusai found numerous ways around this, as did the other artists, but it was a daily factor in their lives that kept them from truly being able to advance and become prosperous. When Japan is finally opened to the rest of the world (something the Shogun has violently protested) these artists finally begin to receive the recompense and notoriety that has been held from them for so long. It was all very interesting to read and contemplate.

Though I had subtle issues with the pacing and abrupt narrative shifts, this book was really a very interesting piece of fiction. It was a rather long book and at times it felt plodding, but overall, it was a read that I think a lot of historical fiction enthusiasts would enjoy. The narrative had the ability to veer between raunchy bits and passages of great esoteric wisdom and beauty, which was also interesting to experience. It wasn’t exactly a favorite for me, but I did get a lot of enjoyment out of some of the themes and ideas expressed. A fascinating story that could have used just a little tweaking in the execution.

About the Author

Katherine Govier is a winner of the Toronto Book Award and Canada’s Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career. Her novel Creation, about John James Audubon in Labrador, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in Toronto.

Visit her website at and connect with her on Facebook.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, November 22nd:Melody & Words
Wednesday, November 23rd:Books Like Breathing
Friday, November 25th:nomadreader
Monday, November 28th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, November 29th:A Few More Pages
Wednesday, November 30th: Life In Review
Tuesday, December 6th: Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, December 7th:The Lit Witch
Thursday, December 8th:Unabridged Chick
Friday, December 9th:Amused By Books
Monday, December 12th:Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Tuesday, December 13th:A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, December 14th:Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Stacy at The Novel Life said...

i do love great historical fiction and isn't it so true that we do tend to be fascinated by that which also horrifies us, ie - the prostitution
great review as always Heather! I'm definitely going to have to check this one out!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was all caught up in your review thinking this sounds like a book I might enjoy grabbing off my shelf right now, and then realized it was "The Dressmaker's Daughter" I have LOL

Thanks for the interesting review.

Beth F said...

I've had this one on my radar but I haven't picked it up yet. I like historical fiction and I like the Japanese setting. Maybe I'll be ready for it after the holidays.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like Oei's loyalty was a product of the society and times and that she felt some resentment because of it. I had to laugh that you enjoyed the peek into the brothels so much, because I probably would too.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have the feeling that if *you* lost some threads, I would be totally frustrated and DNF it! Thanks for the honest review!

Jennifer | Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I think this one sounds like a good read. I haven't heard of it before, but I'll add it to my wish list. Great review!

TheBookGirl said...

My experience with historical fiction set in Japan is pretty much limited to James Clavell's books and books set in WWTI or immediately thereafter. So this would be an entirely new area for me, but I have to confess to being a little wary after your comments about the uneven-ness of the narrative. That might be okay in a shorter book, but I don't know if I would have the staying power to push through the plodding parts in a book this long.

Marie Cloutier said...

Huh. Sounds intriguing. I'll keep my eye out for it!

Anonymous said...

This sounds fascinating. Great review!

Aarti said...

You're about as far from a heathen as anyone I can imagine ;-) It's always fun to read about things that you've never experienced before, like brothels and polygamy in your case!

Suko said...

Excellent, honest review! It sounds as if you enjoyed many aspects of this book.

Ana S. said...

lol, don't worry, I will NOT call you a heathen :P I think those bits could easily have been the ones I'd have found the most interesting myself.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

A little editing goes a very long way, and it sounds like this book could have used a bit more of that "tweaking," as you say. It sounds like a book that might interest me, and yes, I'm also a fan of reading about prostitution and brothels, especially those from the past, in other country that I'm not familiar with, etc. Great review and insight!

nomadreader said...

I really liked the parts about prostitutes too, but I forgot to mention that in my review. I must be a heathen too;-) It was nice to see your descriptive review. I had many of the same reactions, but I had a hard time saying much of anything about this one. (Also, thanks for linking to my review!)

Jenny said...

LOL, you're not a heathen! I hate when a book just doesn't seem to flow right, especially when we would probably love it otherwise.

Jenners said...

You heathen you! (Well, you said to call you that.) It does sound different from other historical fiction books … it doesn't have any Tudors in it!

Anonymous said...

I tend to like books that delve into the lives of "fallen women" ... guess that makes me a heathen as well!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Jenna said...

Haha, heathen! You're too funny. I must fall into the same category then because it is often illicit worlds that fascinate me the most. At 512 pages I can understand where the novel could become a little tedious. This is a perfect example of how a little more conscientious editing would have helped a book immensely. Excellent review!

Lisa said...

Does sound like this is something I would enjoy but it's good to know going in that it will get a bit slow and disjointed at times. Thanks for the great review, heathen!

Ti said...

I'd be fascinated with the brothels as well.

This book was one of the books for my book club's book exchange but I didn't know anything about it. No one in the club knew anything about it so it got traded a few times.

Darlene said...

I've always been interested in reading about brothels, etc. as well. lol. I had wondered about this one but wasn't sure it was for me. Anyhow have you ever read Crimson Petal and the sanitation or Forever Amber. Those are both really good.

Eesti said...

Katherine Govier's The Ghost Brush is a poignant novel about the life of the Japanese painter Oei, daughter of the famous painter Hokusai. This historical novel, which was meticulously researched, will be of high interest to anyone interested in Japanese art and history. Set in the nineteenth century as Japan awkwardly transitions toward modernism, Oei's story unfolds with an enchanting cast of characters, including the surly but admirable Hokusai. At one level this novel is a meditation on the impermanence of life, the futility of trying to fight off old age and the eventual outcome, death. But Oei's voice transcends all of this, leaving the reader with many unforgettable moments. Oei's life is an epic struggle to find her place in the male dominated culture of traditional Japan and to resolve her conflicted relationship with her self-absorbed father. This book is pure poetry. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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