Friday, May 30, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai by Barbara Lazar

I had the honor and privilege of hearing Barbara Lazar speak about her book, The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai, at a recent meeting of the San Antonio Writer's Guild. I then had the fortune of finding a copy of the book at, you guessed it, Half Price Books. 

The Situation: Kozaisho is a fifth daughter in 12th century Japan, and terrible at both sewing and writing. Despite her older sisters' attempts to help her become better at both, she doesn't progress, and instead seeks to help her brothers and their father by carrying water in the fields. It is during such a trip that she is met on the way by a priest, and later sold by her family in order for them to obtain extra land. It isn't that uncommon of a practice, but it is still incredibly hard on a young girl who is not only suddenly taken from her family, but also charged to uphold the family's honor by doing what is right and obeying whoever she is placed under in her new home. She doesn't want her family to have to forfeit the new land they just received, and she does want to bring them honor, so she is determined to do just what her father asks.

The Problem: Obeying her master and retaining her family's honor will prove incredibly difficult in her new home. When she was still with her parents and sisters, Kozaisho would pull her sisters' hair if they upset her, and while her family was poor, they were free. Now, with enough food to eat, Kozaisho is under constant threat of abuse under her new master, Proprietor Chiba, as well as the priest who found her on the way to meet her brothers and father. The slightest infraction would cause her to receive cuts and bruises on her back. Understandably, Kozaisho dreams of being reunited with her family, and hopes to one day be returned to them if she continues to obey and act honorably. Over time, Kozaisho will be sold two more times, and at one time or another be a woman-of-play (prostitute), teller of stories, and even a samurai. The "pillow book" is essentially the diary where she wrote down all that happened to her, and how she started out life as an impoverished child, and eventually became the Flower Samurai.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 12th century Japan. The story is told by Kozaisho, and uses Japan's Gempei War (794-1185) as the backdrop. Kozaisho eventually fights for the Taira clan, while most historical accounts of the actual war are told from the Minamoto side, as they were the victors. But the book is not only full of information about the war and the samurai's, but also about women-for-play, Japanese customs of the time, Japanese politics, religion, and even certain festivals. The Minamoto clan are the obvious enemies, but priests are also often proved to be untrustworthy, and there are very few the Kozaisho feels comfortable around. Honor is incredibly important, as are obedience and respect, and Kozaisho is often at war within herself as she wishes to do the right and honorable thing, but also finds herself desperate to take revenge for crimes committed against herself and her friends. If she chooses the wrong action, it is believed it will come back against her as karma is also very important. It is the struggle of one young girl to not only survive, but to overcome the incredibly difficult circumstances she is constantly placed in an effort for her family to be able to better provide for themselves.

My Verdict: This book is interesting, parts of it are even fascinating, but it can also be, in many places, incredibly tedious. I think for me, it was all of the rituals and bowing that had to be done in order to respect someone's authority and show that the characters know their place. It is just so constant, and I suppose that is reflective of life in 12th century Japan. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading about a female samurai and her quest for revenge while trying her best to maintain her and her family's honor. I do feel it was a bit too long, and also somehow not long enough. The ending seemed forced, as if the author was attempting to tie up too many loose ends too quickly - as if even she acknowledged that it needed to end soon, but there were too many storylines out there that still needed to be dealt with. Some characters seem to disappear, while others are given an anticlimactic ending. Even so, it is a book worth reading, and the amount of detail and care that was put into the writing makes it clear that Lazar really did her research.

Favorite Moment: When Kozaisho learns to be patient and is able to elevate herself and gain information by using her story-telling, while those in power don't notice and have no idea what she is up to. 

Favorite Character: While I wish he had a slightly bigger part, my favorite character is the samurai Akio, who teaches Kozaisho to be a samurai, starting when she is only eight years old. He is incredibly protective of her, and remains with her throughout her journey, always keeping her safe and reminding her of the proper behavior of a true samurai.

Recommended Reading: It should come as no surprise that I would recommend Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. There are similarities of course, but they are two very different books. Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't deal much in samurais, and The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai isn't at all about geishas, even though Kozaisho does spend many years as a sort of prostitute. But both books do tell the story of women in Japan learning to live with the life they have been forced into.

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