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Book Review: The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (3/5)

26 Oct

Has anyone else noticed there are a lot of books about World War II era lately? I’ve read a lot, but maybe that’s just me. What I’ve noticed is that a lot more of them are focused on the Asian aspect of the war and I find that really interesting. This book focused on a part of the war I’d never considered, the Chinese and Japanese aggression in the late 30s. This was something I didn’t know anything about it I liked learning about it through a book. My book club read this book after a librarian ordered it for us so I’m not sure who will like it, but I think it will be a good discussion.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

Summary from Goodreads:

A 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soulmate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

This is the most character-driven story I’ve read in a long time. It was refreshing in a way, but also reminded me why I like plot-driven stories. Stephen comes to Tarumi sick and leaves not only recovered, but renewed in spirit. No singular thing happens to change his life course, no discovery is so profound that it changes him forever, but through a series of events and learnings, he grows. Matsu is an interesting agent for these changes because Matsu is so quiet and stoic, an unlikely character to lead Stephen on this journey. Sachi was an interesting twist to add though I’m still struggling through her purpose. Overall, I had some mixed feelings on this book. I enjoyed it while reading it, but in reflection I didn’t get much out of it and felt there was a lot more I would have liked to read about these characters afterward.

The characters were believable to me. I thought that for such a small cast, the characters had a wide variety of personalities. Matsu seemed hard to believe at first but as his story came out and we learn more about his sister and Sachi, he’s easier to understand. I wished Keiko was better developed because she seemed to have so much more potential as a character. I wanted to understand better why Stephen was so attracted to her.

Sachi was my favorite character. I thought she had the best story and I liked how we learned about her as the story went without too much being revealed at the beginning. She grew on me slowly and that made it more fun. In the beginning, I didn’t know what made her so strong yet shy. Those things seemed at ends with each other to me. As I learned more, I saw her as a woman who refused to give up but was still ashamed of how she looked. Matsu was the source of her strength and she learned to be strong when he wasn’t around.

Stephen was a good narrator because he was easy to relate to. His situation reminded me of starting a new job; when  you’re thrust into a situation with strangers and you have to learn how to tread in order to be accepted and to make friends. He wasn’t sure how to act around Matsu and wasn’t sure when to insert himself into his new companion’s personal life. He had to let Matsu make the first moves on that front. At the same time, he’s deciding how much of himself to share with Matsu and both take slow approaches. It’s how we make friends and I think that story is relatable for most humans.

Image via Youtube

Gail Tsukiyama Image via Youtube

I thought the fire in Yamaguchi was a great scene in the book. It helped develop the relationship between Sachi and Matsu and helped Stephen grow physically. Stephen’s health was the reason he went to Tarumi and the fire showed that poor health was no longer keeping him there. We also learned more about Matsu’s relationship with Yamaguchi and Sachi and this is before Sachi tells her story. I thought it was a well-developed scene.

I thought the relationship problems between Stephen’s parents didn’t do anything for the plot. I think nothing would have been different had that not been a part of the story. It took a character I was indifferent about and made me dislike him while it made me frustrated with Stephen for not fighting more for his mother’s rights. I think it could have been left out and the story would have still been strong.


Stephen changes a lot in his year at Tarumi. He sees a lot of things he wasn’t exposed to in Hong Kong and missed out on being exposed to a lot of bad things had he stayed in China. He’s able to see prejudices while avoiding bombs and witness compassion instead of ruthless destruction. Stephen left his home and education to find a new home and learn different lessons. We can learn wherever we are, even a leper village in Japan. And not all lessons are taught in schools; some we have to learn by doing.

Writer’s Takeaway: The garden played a very central role in the book in a very subtle way. It was what centered Matsu and what helped give Sachi purpose when she lost hers. It was calming and beautiful. I thought it was interesting that the only painting Stephen did in the whole book was of the garden. It was a central gathering point, a common interest, among the three main characters, something no one else in the book noticed or talked about. I liked that it was a very public private secret. It helped join the characters together and though the title at first makes you think it will take a more central role in the book, it also helps point out the role it is playing.

An enjoyable book, though not my cup of tea. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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