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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Book Review: The Teahouse Fire

お茶屋の火事

The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

teahouse-fireAnyone who has ever spent time in Japan knows that tea is more than simply a kind of refreshment. Chado, or The Way of Tea, embodies a philosophy, a way of life. Ellis Avery studied tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto. She brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to her first novel.

Like Arthur Golden's Memoirs of Geisha, The Teahouse Fire brings the reader into a world that was once closed to Westerners. However, while Golden wrote in the voice of a geisha--an insider--Avery chooses to observe the world of tea during the volatile Meiji Era through the eyes of a foreigner. Aurelia Corneille was born in New York to an unmarried French maid. When she is orphaned, she immigrates to Japan with her missionary uncle, Charles, a man she dislikes.

One night, she leaves the house and ventures out to a Japanese shrine. She makes a wish for any life but this one. When she goes back to the house, she finds that it is in flames. Aurelia takes refuge in a Japanese teahouse, where she is discovered by Yukako Shin, daughter of Japan's leading tea master, and a descendant of Rikyu, the founder of tea ceremony. Aurelia manages to pass herself off as a Japanese (some believe her unusual face to be the result of a botched abortion) and lives with the Shin family as a maid for the next 25 years.

Most of the novel takes place during the reign of the Emperor Meiji, a time of great reform and heavy Western influence in Japan. Samurai were required to lay down their swords; lowly merchants were suddenly given status. Electric lights and glass windows were introduced, along with the bustle and education for women. This period also saw many changes in the world of tea.

Although the ceremony was once performed only by male tea masters for other men of high social ranking, it gradually became a mostly feminine pursuit. Avery weaves these historical elements into a riveting story of love and betrayal. As in tea ceremony itself, there are many moments of great beauty. This is an impressive debut.

Suzanne Kamata

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