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[161] The Teahouse Fire – Ellis Avery

“As I purified each utensil under the kiri [paulownia] dome, I felt her beside me, prodding me here and there with her fan: like so, like so. I felt her as I had when I was small, folding her fingers around mine, her hands now as blasted with age as my own…I gently tapped tea into the bowl, hearing Yukako more with my hands than my ears…My body had known hers this intimately, I thought.” [389]

The Teahouse Fire sets in late 19th century Kyoto when pressure of intense Westernization impinges on traditional Japanese culture and customs. Aurelia Bernard, an American orphan, has followed her missionary uncle to Miyako (now Kyoto) where the team aspires to evangelize Japan, in secret, because the imperial city is closed to foreigners. One night in 1866, fleeing both her uncle and a fire that sweeps the city, the little girl takes shelter in the beautiful Baishian Teahouse where Shin Yukako, daughter of Kyoto’s most revered tea master, has adopted her as a maid, and later a surrogate younger sister.

The next thirty years have seen drastic changes in both Japan and the Shin family’s fortune, as the emperor professes allegiance to Western ideas and implements cultural reformation. He has decreed an end to feudal aristocracy. The new cultural program dismisses chado (the Way of Tea) as an archaic pastime that it is better to be abandoned than subsidized by the government. We see the vicissitude of the Shin through the eyes of Aurelia, who is renamed Urako, who navigates through a culture that is not always accepting of outsiders.

As Yukako lavishes wisdom and generosity upon Urako, Avery brings the conflicts of modernization into the teahouse, where the art of temae, tea-preparing ceremony, begins to fall out of favor. Yukako, struggling to bring money in for the family, crosses class lines and gives temae lessons to a geisha in exchange for the lessons of the shamisen, a string instrument. Eventually stuck in a painful marriage, she adapts the ancient tea ceremony to cater the changing need, resulting in a breath-taking confrontation.

Outwardly the novel depicts changes from a Shogun society to imperialism, but the bottom line is about finding one’s place in a country undergoing changes and striving to retain its inveterate traditions. While Urako struggles to fit in, pedaling against disrespect and insinuations, Yukako also finds herself in an awkward position of gender politics. Urako’s memoir illustrates how the Japanese have fortified themselves against foreigners. As the elderly Aurelia narrates the story, which is somewhat disjointed and sporadic (sometimes I feel the details that should not be taken for granted are missing, leaving a lot of gap), we are let into what begins as grateful puppy love for Yukako matures over the years into a deeply painful unrequited obsession. It would be a more powerful story if Avery has just focused on these two and the ceremony, because the proliferation of characters and branching off of the main plot, which she has a difficult time bringing back to the fold, have put the book on slow wheels.

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like a somewhat frustrating read. Sometimes authors try to do too much instead of focusing on a more limited but more powerful storyline.

  2. Would you prefer The Memoirs of a Geisha over The Teahouse Fire?

  3. Marie:
    Exactly. But I like reading the cultural nuances. Just keep the story simple and focused.

  4. John:
    Oh anytime. It’s much more well-written.

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