Friday, January 13, 2012

The Teahouse Fire

I missed TheTeahouse Fire by Ellis Avery when it published in 2007. It got right by me. Not sure how that happened but my local came to the rescue. Since I have a fabulous, independent bookstore nearby I have a place to browse, discover and purchase. In the course of my latest or weekly visit to the bookstore however you want to describe it, I found The Teahouse Fire. Liked the cover, loved the description and decided to give it a new home. 
In the span of a few months in 1865 Aurelia Bernard goes from living with her mother and priest uncle in New York to being the orphaned servant girl of the Shin family in Kyoto. That seems like it was an interesting chain of events, right? Well it gets better. The Shin family is headed by a master of the tea ceremony. The family therefore enjoys an elevated status in the community and as artists extra money from the government. The heiress daughter of the Shins, Yukako, takes on Aurelia whom she renames Urako, as her personal servant and sometime little sister.

Although Aurelia’s tragedies start the story in The Teahouse Fire she is more of a witness to the fortunes and misfortunes of the Shins than an active participant in her own fate. She is the foreigner who is assimilated into the Japanese household but never fully loses her outsider standing. Aurelia’s main function is to tell us the story of Yukako, the great love of her life.

The late nineteenth century was a fascinating time of change in Japan. For the first time it was completely open to westerners. Japan was entering the world stage and the world was taking advantage of the occasion to benefit from Japanese art, culture and economic opportunities.  Author Ellis Avery does a tremendous job factoring these historical elements into her novel. It is incredibly interesting but Avery isn’t able to edit out the details that don’t advance the story and/or add richness to her characterizations. This slows the novel at times to a glacial pace.

I enjoyed The Teahouse Fire (Thank you local bookstore!) but I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Japanese history. In this debut novel Avery builds the outline of a terrific story but sacrifices the emotional punch of the situations she has the imagination to create to highlight all the scholarship she’s done. I think a better editor could have helped her craft more drama and less diorama.

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