|On Sale:||05/05/2010||Publisher: Harper Collins|
Today I place in your cupped hands Katherine Govier's sumptuous novel, "The Ghost Brush", set in 19th century Japan or Edo as it was called then. Edo was under the rule of the Shogun, or more specifically the Tokugawa Shogunate. Society in the Tokugawa period, unlike the shogunates before it, was based on a strict class hierarchy. The daimyo, or lords, were at the top, followed by the samurai (warriors), with the farmers, artisans, and traders ranking below. Outside the four classes were the eta and hinin. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes.
Although prostitutes and entertainers were considered "Outsiders", an art emerged during this period that focused on the lives, fashions and aesthetics of courtesans and entertainers. So, ironically, although prostitutes and their craft was looked down upon, people were interested in what they wore, how they spent their leisure time, their mannerisms etc. hence all the leading artists of the day could be found in Yoshiwara (the Pleasure District) painting away like their lives depended on what the courtesans did and indeed such was the case.
One of those artists was Hokusai ( best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s. Ofcourse, these works came later and when the book opens Hokusai is a simple painter and a frequent visitor to the red light district where he takes his 10-year old daughter Oei for company and also to help him mix the paints he needs.
Growing up in adult company Oei grows to be a precocious (but not unlikeable little girl). She soon strikes up a friendship with one of the courtesans (Shino). Shino is a Lady that has been sent to the brothel as a punishment for insulting her husband. It is through Oei's evenings with Shino that the reader is treated to what brothel life was like in Edo and the traditions, rituals and ceremonies that were a part of a courtesan's life. Reading Katherine Govier's colourful and rich descriptions of life in Yoshiwara took me back to movies by the old Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi, especially his movies "Osaka Elegy", "Sisters of the Gion" and "The Life of Oharu".
Anyway, so under her father's tutelage, Oei started to work on drawings of women. She illustrated manuals for female behavior-- etiquette, housekeeping, fashion, even childbirth. But even though she did all of that, she herself was a rebel and refused to conform to "appropriate" female behavior. Although she was plain with a rather prominent jaw (not considered beautiful at all), she managed to have a lot of lovers as many men were attracted to her strong spirit. She drank and was addicted to her tobacco pipe, but no matter her flaws, she always remained Hokusai's dutiful daughter, helping her father with his commissions but never taking credit for any of them. This is where the title originates from, Oei was Hokusai's "Ghost Brush".
Oei married one of Hokusai's students, and even though her husband doted on her, he just wasn't bright or intelligent enough for Oei. One day she happened to laugh at one of his paintings and he "showed her the broom" which meant, he asked her to leave his home. Oei wanted her freedom back but the only way she could get a divorce was to seek refuge at Tokeiji Temple aka the "Run-in Temple". It was said that when you saw a woman running in the area, you knew she was on her way to Tokeiji, likely being chased by her husband. When Oei returned home from the temple, a newly-divorced woman, she took over her father's studio because an attack of palsy rendered him unable to communicate via speech.
The only foreigners in Edo at that time were the Dutch. Xenophobic as ever, Japan took a lot of pains to keep foreigners away. Only a few Dutchmen (from the Dutch-East India Company) were allowed to trade and they were confined to Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor - a de facto prison for the dozen or so men permitted to live and work there. (It is rumoured that the Dutch were the only foreigners chosen to work in Japan because they were the only ones that agreed to stamp on their Holy Book). Coincidentally, the hero of David Mitchell's new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" features one such Dutchman from Dejima. The book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, it will be interesting to see if it wins.
With Hokusai's speech affected by palsy it was left to Oei to meet with his patrons. So when a Dutchman showed interest in buying some of Hokusai's art, Oei went to meet him and Govier cleverly uses their conversations as a narrative tool to share with the reader how the east and the west perceived each other at that time.
As the story moves on the reader will find herself or himself rooting for Katsushika Oei to come in to her own...with talent like hers it is unfortunate to have her hiding in her father's shadow and yet that time in Japan demanded that women be completely servile to the men. Perhaps the most puzzling thing is that there was no coercion, women seemed to be willing partners in their own invisibility.
When a novelist will pluck a hero out of obscurity and tell the world about him or her, I feel as readers we owe them a debt of gratitude, so, Katherine Govier, here's a very big thank you to you! Your novel on the immensely talented Katsushika Oei is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.
If historical fiction, art or 19th century Japan is your thing, please pick up a copy of "The Ghost Brush"... it is a captivating and beautifully-rendered saga of Japan, also, it is so rich with period effect that it makes a great candidate for a screen drama. While it may be historical fiction, let us also not forget that at the heart of it all is the story of incomparable love between a father and daughter.
Go here for a companion website to the novel, historical background, source material, and images from the work of Japanese printmaker Hokusai and his daughter Oei.