Book Club Reflection: The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

9 Nov

 

My book club met a few weeks ago to discuss Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book because I was looking for a little more action in the plot, but I did think the characters were beautifully done. Most people in the group really liked the book. One recommended the audiobook, which she particularly enjoyed. The writing was very poetic and soothing which made for good listening.

It’s no wonder the book was so poetic because Tsukiyama started her career in poetry. We learned a little about the author and I wasn’t surprised to hear she was born of a Japanese mother and Chinese father. She didn’t live through World War II, but her parents likely told her stories of the war. She likes to write about interactions between different Asian cultures and Western culture. We saw the Western influence in this book with Stephen’s father and even the names he chooses for his children. She also likes to write about women’s rights in Asian culture. We touched a bit on Stephen’s mother and her rights which I will get to later.

Stephen and Sachi had a lot of similarities and were well juxtaposed next to each other. They were both sick and suffering from their illness, but they dealt with it differently. Stephen ignored his illness as much as possible, several times pushing himself beyond his limited and endangering himself. Sachi, on the other hand, was rather stable but was very cautious of her deformity. Stephen grew from his illness, especially after the fire where he had to take responsibility and help despite his illness and restrictions. Seeing Hiro work so hard despite his illness pushed Stephen to do the same and he realized his responsibilities.

We all thought the relationship between Keiko and Stephen was cute. It reminded us of when we read The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet a few months ago. (A boy with an Anglo name and a girl named Keiko, one Chinese the other Japanese, WWII, I could go on.) She didn’t see a problem with Stephen until her father said something. She knew it wasn’t ‘right’ but didn’t really see a problem with it at first. It wasn’t until she was personally affected by ‘the Chinese’ as a group that she had an issue. Until then, Stephen was Stephen. After her brother died, Stephen was ‘one of them.’ She only saw him as part of a larger group.

The relationships between Matsu, Kenzo, and Sachi drove a lot of the plot. We wondered if Kenzo had not been in the picture or had moved to Tokyo, would Matsu and Sachi had a more obvious relationship? As it was, they were clandestine and hid their relationship from others, even Stephen for most of the novel. When Kenzo realizes that Keiko cares for Matsu, even if it’s only as a friend, he is angry and he shakes himself in how he treats Sachi. He is very mean and insults her. It makes him realize he is a coward for not going to see her and  as we’ve seen in this culture, that shame is not tolerable.

There was a lot of suicide in this book and it stuck out to us how differently suicide was treated in this book from how we perceive it in our culture. When Sachi is sick, she sees it as an obligation to kill herself. My Wikipedia research gave me a great summary of this topic in Bushido (Samurai Code):

Bushido expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Under the bushido ideal, if a samurai filed to uphold his honor he could only regain t by performing seppuku (ritual suicide).

This idea of seppuku comes into the book in many forms. Using this as a guideline, Sachi breaks bushido when she doesn’t kill herself when her disease takes hold. Matsu breaks the code by leaving his garden and master regularly to take care of Sachi. There’s a story from a few years ago about a Japanese businessman who killed himself over recalls. (Note- this isn’t unusual in business and is not unique to Japan, but serves as an interesting fact with this book.) Matsu tells Stephen that for Sachi, “It takes greater courage to live (p 139).”

Though this code seems to define life for many of our characters, many of them break it and become heroic for their actions. Matsu leaves the garden and helps build a community for lepers. Stephen was sent away because of his TB but helps save the village when he leaves his confinement. Matsu is helping second-class citizens who ‘dirty’ him to make productive lives which should ‘shame him. Those who are brave enough to fight back are our heroes.

Pie also breaks the code in her own little way. She doesn’t tell her mother about her volunteer time with the Red Cross and is, in effect, dishonoring her master/mother. Again, we find her actions heroic because she is helping the wounded Chinese soldiers and victims. There’s no denying Tsukiyama likes to make a point about cultures!

If we can connect Matsu, Sachi, and Stephen to the samurai code, who is the samurai in the title? It makes the most sense to say the garden it Matsu’s because he tends to it prior to the plot. However, Sachi is a strong warrior and she has her own garden of stones in addition to helping Matsu repair his garden when it’s ruined. Stephen helps in the garden as well and paints it, his artistic outlet. Really, we decided, it could be any of the main characters except for Kenzo. His character was cowardly. When Sachi and Stephen are sitting in the garden, she explains the significance of the bridge to him.

Matsu once told me the bridge represented the samurai’s difficult path from this world to the afterlife. When you reach the top of the bridge, you can see y our way to paradise. (38)

We found it interesting to note that Keiko’s brother is the only soldier character in the book. Stephen and King, the two military-aged men we know by name, don’t fight. It seems interesting that in a book set so starkly against a backdrop of war, there’s only one small part of a soldier.

There was a struggle to find peace in solitude for the three main characters. Our group really concluded that while they were at peace with their solitude, they came alive and grew when they were with other people. Matsu was fine alone, but in Yamaguchi and with Stephen he came out of his shell. Sachi needed people around her in Yamaguchi and Matsu to find peace. Stephen was okay with being alone in Tarumi but came alive when he saw Keiko and her sister. There can be an acceptance of loneliness, but with others the characters grew.

The affair between Stephen’s parents seemed out-of-place and unneeded to me. I think it was the author’s attempt to make a statement about women’s rights and it didn’t do anything for me. It was about money during a depression when they were lucky to have what they did. The two were blaming each other for their own actions and it seemed like his mother was trying to get Stephen to her side. We thought it was strange that the mother would turn to her son with something so personal to ask for help, but she really had no other options. We were all a bit surprised that he lied to his mother about the money. It seemed out of character for him.

As a group, we had very few problems with this novel. Some felt that Stephen came across as very ‘feminine,’ as if the author didn’t take herself out of the character enough. His thoughts were a bit emotional and he seemed ‘soft,’ though some attributed that to his upper-class upbringing. My personal issue was with the diary format. At the beginning and end, the writing seemed like a diary to me, but that was 5 pages out of 200. The rest felt like a narrative and I thought it would have been stronger if the whole thing was written as a narrative. But again, I’m picky.

Our next book is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety which I already began and am loving.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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