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Senior Correspondent

Strength and Devotion in “The Samurai’s Garden”

Book Review

"The Samurai's Garden" by Gail Tsukiyama (St. Martin's Press, 1994)

The setting is Japan in 1937, and Japan has invaded China. This unrest informs much of the novel. Author Gail Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco to a Japanese father and Chinese mother, so both cultures are a part of her. In her story, a young Chinese man is sent to his family’s beach home in Japan to rest and recover from tuberculosis. His father, a businessman in Kobe, will look in on him. But young Stephen finds it hard to be removed from his university classmates and family members to exist in this isolated setting. His only companion is Matsu, the caretaker of the house and garden since the time of Stephen’s grandfather. He is a man of almost no words and Stephen feels awkward in his presence. At the same time, he admires Matsu for the obvious care he has given the vacation house and its surroundings.

Japan’s invasion of China frightens and troubles Stephen, although his father assures him the invasion will not go far. Stephen concentrates on a life in which he swims, paints, rests, and regains his health. People who extend his experience beyond the everyday routine then come into the story. Shy neighbors, two attractive young Japanese girls, watch him but seldom speak. Instead, they drop flower petals over the wall of his garden.

The laconic Matsu invites Stephen to go with him to visit a friend in a nearby village. At this point the author introduces a shocking episode that I have not read about in detail before — the disease of leprosy and its effect upon victims and their loved ones. Tsukiyama pulls no punches in her depiction of the plague that infected hundreds in the seaside resort town. Many disfigured victims dwell in a nearby village set aside for this purpose. Since the disease was said to bring dishonor to the families of those affected, many withdrew for the remainder of their lives. Matsu’s shy friend Sachi, on one side of her face is the most beautiful woman Stephen has met. The other side, always covered by a scarf, is virtually destroyed, with portions of the features eaten away. A strange peace pervades the friendship between Matsu and Sachi and over the course of the story we learn their intriguing and sometimes appalling history, as well as those of other family members. Stephen has his own personal setback when the young Japanese girl he loves rebuffs him because he is Chinese.

Gardens are essential to the story. Matsu, a master at creating landscapes, is responsible for the tranquil surroundings of the beach house enjoyed by Stephen’s family for many years, including pine trees, blossoms, and carpeting of moss. For Sachi’s reclusive home, Matsu honored her wish to have no flowers to remind her of the exquisite beauty she has lost. Instead, he lifted by mule a huge number of stones, large and small, up the mountainside to her remote home, creating an arrangement of stones ranging from large flat ones to tiny pebbles mimicking a flowing brook, streams and quiet. Sashi gains peace by rearranging the stones and comes to terms with the tragic losses in her life.

This novel’s careful, measured prose includes vivid descriptions of simple but elegant Japanese meals,customs, clothing, and gardens. Matsu is not the samurai of the title, but Stephen sees him that way in his strength, faithfulness and devotion to his convictions. An enthralling tale, this is a worthwhile read.

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