After finishing The Last Concubine I came across a (spoiler-filled) video in which Lesley Downer, the author, likens her novel to “a Gone With The Wind set in Japan”. The parallel is awkward, not to say unfortunate. Beyond the surface similarities – a 19th-century civil war, destruction of a way of life, and a heroine-centric narrative – any real comparison is disadvantageous for The Last Concubine. Gone With The Wind is epic – big and complex and ambitious, a Pulitzer-prize-winning, love/hate classic, all things The Last Concubine, with its thin plot, skimpy characterisations, and tentatively developed themes is definitely not. The unflattering contrast draws away attention from the latter’s unique appeal for lovers of romantic historical fiction: a rare, carefully researched historical setting, likeable characters including a halberd-wielding samurai heroine, and a love story with a HEA. And while Downer’s historical non-fiction roots show, frequently overwhelming story in this, her 2008 fiction debut, she also won me over by compellingly bringing to life the spirit of a bygone era.
1861-1872. Picked up from a village* on impulse by Princess Kazu whose bridal entourage is passing through the Kiso valley, eleven-year old Sachi, the adopted daughter of rural samurai, enters service in the women’s Inner Palace of the vast Edo Castle, the residence of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi, ruler of Japan. At the age of fifteen, Sachi is offered as candidate to be the one and only concubine to the Shogun by the Princess, his childless consort. Her beauty and free spirit earn Sachi the young Shogun’s favour in spite of a rival faction, led by Retired Lady Tensho'in, who despise her as a peasant upstart. When Sachi is moved into her own apartments as the Shogun’s second wife – the honourable lady of the side chamber – she seems destined for a brilliant future.
But outside the many tall, thick walls of the strictly secluded palace there is rumble of war. Distant at first, the uprising by southern rebels seems too insignificant to have any effect on the centuries-old traditions and rarefied atmosphere of the Inner Palace. Then catastrophe strikes. Soon, Sachi is given a mission that sends her straight into danger – and the discovery of something wildly joyful for which her culture knows no word. Foreigners may call the concept love, but Sachi realises her forbidden passion for a ronin can only lead to the ruination of them both.
Yet winds of change are shaking Japan to its foundations. Amid the destruction, secrets are blown open. Are they a warning – or a reason to hope?
Nineteenth-century Japanese society is unknown territory for me but Downer’s apparent familiarity with the era is so comfortable and comforting that I was never left to observe customs and attitudes with a distancing sense of foreignness. The Last Concubine managed to pull me into a culture very different from mine with an ease that made even the strange (to me) feel natural and understandable. That is a great gift to a reader like me who enjoys exploring differences and samenesses in cultures and values through the medium of fiction.
The Japan stereotyped in Europe and America can be found in the novel, too: the one of poetic delicacy (plum blossom petals and autumnal maple leaves) contrasted with blood-dripping feudal cruelty. But Downer does guide readers beyond the wall of exotic imagery and gently familiarises them with the daily realities of both the haves and have-nots during the later Edo period. For example, we meet rural samurai whose lives revolve around practical and administrative chores unrelated to fighting, such as inn-keeping; delicately scented and exquisitely dressed palace ladies whom decorum requires to be sealed off from contact with commoners but who are trained in lethal battle techniques in order to be able to protect the shogun; we see the rigidly ritualised religious and administrative formalities, all performed by attending female functionaries, surrounding every moment, both public and private, of the shogun’s dealings with his wife, concubine, and any other lady; and we experience the honoured and important role adoption plays among both high and low.
Obviously I cannot judge the degree of historical accuracy although the wealth of often minute detail suggests dedicated research. According to Lesley Downer’s website she has spent fifteen years in and out of Japan and wrote several non-fiction books with Japanese subjects before this novel. In The Last Concubine’s interesting Afterword (in which it is noted that any translations from Japanese are Downer’s own) she outlines some of her research, discussing for example how she strove to create authenticity by trying to get the thoughts and feelings of her Japanese characters right. She indicates that she used her imagination where documentation left gaps, as is the case with certain details of life in the women’s palace in Edo (whose inhabitants were sworn to secrecy).
Because the events in the book are seen from the point of view of politically partisan characters and the story does not always present evidence to back up their claims, it is sometimes unclear whether what the reader is told about the war is reliable. This nagged at me especially in the matter of the history of the power struggle between the Emperor and the Shogun. Since I was travelling without my laptop at the time I had to wait to fact check, and when I finally did it increased my discontent with how the subject is handled in the novel. Worth mentioning is that the terminology used in the novel consigns the opposing side to the status of rebels, not revolutionaries. Last but not least, whereas Sachi is a fictional character her fairytalesque life is constructed from the circumstances of two different sets of real-life people including a tragic drama involving well-known persons of the time (who also are made to figure in the novel). This setup involves a dramatic license I dislike, but I appreciate that the author made the effort to acknowledge the liberties taken (including a date change). Another sweetener about my edition (Corgi) of The Last Concubine is the generous supplementary material, which to the five-page afterword adds a three-page bibliography, a note of (informative) acknowledgements, and a fourteen-page article** about the architectural layout and hierarchy of the Ōoku, the women’s palace inside Edo Castle, with some additional biographical details about Princess Kazu (Kazunomiya Chikako/Seikan’in) and Lady Tenshō’in (Atsu-hime).
The story is told in third person limited point of view, i.e. entirely through Sachi. The intimacy thus gained prevents the disjointedness I suspect would have followed had more viewpoints been added since the storytelling already struggles with sprawl. In any case, as this happens to be my preferred POV it enhanced my engagement with Sachi and fed my curiosity, but those who have already been made restless by the simple plot may find the device too negatively limiting. In addition, while The Last Concubine falls into the category of romantic fiction – and was on the Romantic Novelists' Association's shortlist for Best Romantic Novel in 2009 (Julia Gregson won) – the love story does not follow the romance convention of a tight narrative focus on the couple. The relationship development is perfunctory, with long separations and an initial meeting that takes place well into the book. Far more time and depth is allotted to Sachi’s friendships and rivalries with the ladies of the Ōoku. On the other hand, the handling of the love relationship mirrors the respectfulness the hero and heroine show each other and subtly underlines that theirs is a culture with its own rules and behaviours that do not necessarily fit into the format which rests on a European or American understanding of romance.
Sachi is an uncomplicated character and, refreshingly, too pragmatic for introspection to lead to brooding or bitterness. The author also allows her and her fellow palace ladies to be products of their period and circumstances. This includes attitudes to class, gender, and race. A world view in which people, especially women, are property is the norm to Sachi and no cause for neurosis. Physical revulsion is shown toward peasants (animal-like), foreigners (ogre-like barbarians), and others (butchers, who deal in death) deemed not quite human, contact with whom is believed to taint and whose lives and worth are valued accordingly. It follows that there is the opposite being, also not quite human: the Emperor, who is revered as godly for his religious mediation between heaven and earth. Even when he joins the opposition against the Tokugawa shogunate the deferential reverence remains stronger than resentment. All this is dealt with in a matter-of-fact yet nuanced fashion, showing that prickling intersection of the real and the imagined without either finger-pointing or hand-wringing. Downer does not explain her characters, allowing the reader space and opportunity to draw her/his own conclusions from their actions and thoughts.
As mentioned in the introductory paragraph of this post, characterisation is not one of the book’s stronger points. Most characters remain sketchy. This includes Sachi’s love interest, whom I will refrain from naming since a couple of other candidates briefly emerge as alternative possibilities. He is a suitably heroic and romantic figure but hardly a uniquely memorable hero: there is simply too little substance to his portrayal and no psychological exploration of his feelings for Sachi. That said, the author paints her characters with a compassionate brush, adding dashes of humour and largely avoiding black-and-white, and so reading about their interactions with Sachi brought amusement and even some moments of poignancy. For example Taki, Sachi’s maid and closest friend, endeared herself to me despite the stereotype through the stubborn quality of her loyalty, which bows neither to threats nor to authority. Among the historical personages, the representation of Princess Kazu, sister of the Emperor and wife of the Shogun, is tender but somewhat wooden, emphasising passivity and sadness. While that may reflect her circumstances at Edo, the novel seems to simplify her personality: the story does not, for example, give the reader an idea of her political voice in succession matters or negotiations concerning the fate of Edo Castle and by extension the Tokugawas.
A prominent theme is that of emancipation as Sachi’s changed circumstances propel her into growing into someone who must think and decide for herself and learn to assume responsibility for herself. In the war that threatens to destroy life as she knows it lies opportunities many people accustomed to a feudal society never could have dreamt of, because the enemies from the south are spreading ideas shocking to the old order in the north. A victory for the Shogun and the northerners, longed for though it is, would snatch those opportunities away from Sachi. As the city of Edo (now Tokyo) teeters between a feudal society where caste determines fate and family members owe obeisance to their clans, and the modern age in which barriers are being questioned and foreigners bring iron ships and trains onto the sacred soil from which they have long been forbidden, the novel juxtaposes the thousands of isolated women who have only ever known the confines of the Inner Palace with the crowds outside the castle walls. Where once commoners prostrated themselves at the mere approach of members of the nobility, and looking into the face of a lady was forbidden on pain of death, an unsettling refrain begins to be chanted by the displaced, by the poor, by the war weary: “who gives a damn?”
But while the historical backdrop looms large – civil war, foreign intrusion into Japanese politics, the destruction of a way of life – The Last Concubine looks at upheavals and transformations mainly from the sheltered perspective of a small handful of socially privileged characters. The novel does not, for example, tell us whether the palace’s lowest ranking servants, called honourable pups or honourable dogs, maids who “lived on leftovers”, shared the aristocratic women’s nostalgia for the pleasures of daily life at the Shogun’s court. And although Sachi experiences loss and danger, ultimately, in keeping with a romantic tone, her journey is told in the brisk style of an adventure instead of being a fatalistic account of wartime trauma. Here and there we glimpse other destinies, misery and hardship, but the focus remains closely on Sachi’s development from innocent girl to a young woman forging a path for herself through uncertain times and falling in love along the way, reasonably insulated from the deprivations of the masses. In other words, the portrayal of war is mostly reduced to an exciting or stirring backdrop for Sachi’s escapades, including some nice action sequences showcasing the fighting skills of female samurai. (In case anyone is curious: although some women warriors participated as active combatants in the civil war battles (including at Aizu (Wakamatsu), which occurs off-page but is described in The Last Concubine), Sachi does not.) Expect some graphic violence in the descriptions of these smaller-scale clashes and fights, and detailed gore in one scene depicting the aftermath of a major battle.
A debut novel, The Last Concubine is not without considerable narrative awkwardness, particularly before the story warms up. As stated before, Lesley Downer’s first foray into publishing was on the non-fiction side and it shows, most notably in the disparity between confident subject-matter expertise and deficient novelistic techniques. The author has so much information to share that the story bursts onto the pages of the first chapter in a jumbled sprawl that pulls in all directions and includes both substantial flashbacks and a hefty dose of exposition. Those reading principally for plot may need to draw a long breath as they pick through the haphazard threads; in fact the first quarter or so of The Last Concubine will probably require the reader either to exercise patience or to be a devoted armchair traveller: not much happens in terms of story development and the pacing is languorous. The setting is not mere backdrop or a character in itself; it is the unruly star that runs away with the show. Every so often, particularly in the first quarter of the book, it felt to me that Sachi was not so much a character as a facilitator for a guided visit to a place and a period. The historical material out-proportions and can be more interesting than the story, which is sparse enough in the beginning to read like a non-fiction example of a palace woman rising through the ranks. The plot remains simple and low in tension throughout book, not much beefed up by a couple of drawn-out, rather wan twists. The author’s tendency for repetitive imagery, wording, and flashbacks stood out to me as rough spots in the editing. Most disappointing, however, was the execution of the climax. It is a setback in Sachi’s character arc, undoing her growth in robbing her of agency.
In view of these problems, what kept me reading? Without question my fascination with the intricate historical setting was the main factor. The author rolls her story into so much that was unknown to me that while I registered the flaws I was usually kept too pleasantly busy to have the problems drag down the reading experience. Beyond that, however, Downer’s warm, vigorous voice is smooth and this was instrumental in helping to offset the flawed narrative structure. Happily, too, The Last Concubine is a novel that improves as it progresses. As Sachi slowly grows into her own as a heroine and ceases to feel like a generic inhabitant of Edo palace, a more personal and persuasive story unfolds from its non-fiction-style wrapping. When the world the palace women have known comes crashing down, the story, too, begins to stir. The later parts of the book are significantly better balanced in regards to story versus setting. And despite its chaotic structure even the opening chapter makes for fun armchair travel because Downer displays an observant eye, reassuring subject-matter knowledge, and an engaging voice. The author is deft at visuals, often to pretty effect, and knows how to stimulate the senses with smells and sounds. (By the way, here is an article on food during the Edo period.)
During my ten-day holiday read of The Last Concubine I remained aware of its flaws but in the end was rather charmed despite them. Not surprisingly, I really liked the book for being a light, entertaining travel read that has helped to (somewhat) demystify a culture which while offering much I can intellectually admire has as often presented a challenge to my emotional understanding. I look forward to Lesley Downer’s upcoming, third historical novel, Across A Bridge Of Dreams, which hopefully will show significant maturation in her transition from writing non-fiction to being a novelist. On that note, I feel I must stress that while I came away from The Last Concubine with positive impressions, readers wanting primarily character-driven or plot-driven historical fiction will in all likelihood have a far less satisfying time than serious armchair travellers. But if you are itching for a look inside the Versailles of Japan and the city Europeans called the Venice of the East (pointed out to me by Downer’s article**), The Last Concubine may be just the ticket.
*Downer based Sachi’s village on Magome and Tsumago (see Afterword, p.616). Nakasendo Highway: A Journey Into The Heart Of Japan is a website dedicated to the route along which Princess Kazu travelled from Kyoto to Edo. This famous road, along which Sachi, too, travels, figures in The Last Concubine under the translated name of the Inner Mountain Road.
**A slightly altered version of the article, salaciously titled Secrets Of The Shogun’s Harem, is available at the author’s website.
(Corgi Books paperback, 2009, p.157):
“For a moment Sachi stood in silence, gazing at this building that had been her home for so many years. If only this too might be a dream. But the freezing cold told her all to clearly that it was not. She shivered. Even the layers of padded silk were not enough to protect her.
Groups of ladies-in-waiting huddled at the doors to the palanquin sheds. They stared at Sachi with wide, envious eyes as the guards bowed and escorted her into the imperial garages.
The princess’s palanquin stood open. Sachi looked at it with a shock of recognition. It was the same one she had seen years before when Princess Kazu and her entourage had arrived in the village. Everything was just as she remembered – the lacquered red walls fretted with gold and marked with the imperial chrysanthemum, the ornate gold roof and the bamboo window blinds hung with fat red tassels. It seemed all too obvious that if the princess was really trying to escape, she would never travel in such a showy conveyance.
An image flashed into Sachi’s mind of the woman who had stepped from this splendid vehicle when she had seen it as a child, back in the village. She remembered her wide terrified eyes. Even then she had guessed that the woman was a decoy for the princess, which was why she had been so afraid. It was Sachi’s turn now. She was a samurai, a warrior. She would not be afraid – or, if she was, no one would ever see it.”