The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

“When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck he bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”

Thus begin the story of Aurelie, a French American girl of nine in last 19th century. She was taken from her mother, against her will, to accompany her missionary uncle to Kyoto to “convert the barbarians”. When a fire broke out in the house she and her uncle stayed in, she ran away, and ended up in the garden of a Japanese tea master. She was taken in by Yukako, the tea master’s daughter, as partly a maid, partly a younger sister. They did not consider her a foreigner, as she did not have blue eyes and golden hair, but thought that she was just born a bit defected and retarded (as her language skills seeed seriously limited). (I guess if a child with Down’s syndrome can be called Mongol, such perception can go both ways…) As the two girls grew up, they witnessed the political changes in Japan: the birth of Tokyo as the new capital, the demise of power of the samurai clan, the influence of Western culture, the resulting nationalism… and with it, the realization that the art of tea had to adapt to the new world or die.

The beginning of the story strongly reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. Both are about a young girl being plucked from her normal childhood, to enter into a highly codified community of a Japanese traditional art as an outsider. For Aurelie, she was doubly an outsider, barely speaking the language and totally ignorant of the social rules and etiquettes. Thus, a perfect protagonist was created. As things were explained to her, they were explained to the readers, without feeling contrived.

Reading the book gives me the pleasure of understanding more about chado and recent history of Japan. I had attended a tea ceremony once and couldn’t say I enjoyed it, just found the whole thing too artificially formal, sitting painfully on my legs in a constrictive kimino, and a big show for just a cup of hardly palatable tea (the tea was made with grounded tea leaves froth to a foamy, bitter, dark green broth, served with a sweet that supposedly balances the bitterness but for me had the effect of making it more bitter.) I won’t rush for another cup of tea but at least I can see the reason why someone would love it, and appreciate better the thoughts and care that go into the art. Really a lot of thoughts and care. In one ceremony, the windows were closed off except for one, fitted with glass. The ceremony was timed such that the moon would sail into view at the moment the tea was prepared. When the guest arrived in a kimino that doesn’t go well with their decoration, the master had to rearrange the furniture, change the tea box, move the flowers… if they could repaint the room and change the carpet… they probably would too…

As a fiction, Memoirs is without doubt more accompanished. As Aurelie is more an observer in the background, she is often a reporter of events rather than the actress in the center stage. At times the pace feels too slow, the characters walking around the stage without much action and purpose, and some scenes and events are simply uninteresting. Definitely a bit of editing could make the read more pleasurable.

However, I was glad that I stay with the book, because the ending was worth it. In the last fifty pages or so, everything picks up speed, like a train leaving a station, building up, building up, and then with a blast and a loud horn, it runs at you with full force. I closed the book with tears in my eyes, and realize that if not for all the little clues and information the author painstakingly paved along the road, it would be impossible to fully understand Nao’s revenge, and to fully understand Yukako’s gift. All of a sudden I feel like asking Aurelie, don’t stop, don’t stop, tell me more…

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:29 am  Leave a Comment  

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