I couldn’t put this beautifully written book down once I started reading it. It bothered me if I had to stop reading and do something else, and I only felt satisfied once it was in my hands again.
John Burnham Schwartz manages to do a couple of things I admire in an author. He first of all writes in the first person as a woman – utterly convincingly. He then writes about a time period in which he didn’t live and a setting in which I don’t think he lived, although he has written another novel set in Japan, so perhaps he lived there for a while. Both these go against everything I have been told about writing – ‘write about what you know’.
The book is about a Japanese woman called Haruko who marries the Crown Prince of Japan in 1959. She is the first commoner to marry into the monarchy and she is faced with suspicion by most of those she meets within the Imperial Court, especially the Prince’s mother, the Empress. Within this unfamiliar, cruel world, she is left feeling isolated and vulnerable, except for the love of her husband and the friendship of his mentor.
Haruko’s every move is watched and her life controlled by others, especially her ability to bear an heir. After finally falling pregnant, Haruko falls into a deep post-natal depression and suffers a nervous breakdown from which she takes months to recover.
The narrative then moves to thirty years later, when Haruko is now the Empress and she faced with the role of inviting her son’s fiancee into the Imperial Court. His girlfriend is a commoner, yet also an independent businesswoman who is reluctant to give up her lifestyle to enter the rigidity of the court. Haruko finds herself having to persuade the girl to marry her son, knowing full well what sort of life she is welcoming her into.
Although not acknowledged, the book is a fictionalised version of the life story of Empress Michoko of Japan, also a commoner who married into the monarchy and tried to break free from the centuries-old court etiquette.
Schwartz has researched this book meticulously and writes seemingly so effortlessly about it that I could relate to Haruko’s experience totally. It is an insight into a strange, forbidden world, similar in a way to ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.
It is a quiet book, beautifully crafted and hauntingly sad.