Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

across the nightingale floor lian hearn Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Across the Nightingale Floor appears in our list of young adult novels with Asian protagonists

Japanese author and Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is famous for his 'palm of the hand' stories, stories so small and taciturn that they could fit in the grasp of one's curled fingers. These stories comprise mere moments: a meeting of gazes, a gesture, a brief downfall of rain, the arranging of flowers, the steeping of tea. They are like wells: despite having a small, hemmed in surface of finite dimensions, their depths are unknown, dark, requiring close examination, speculation on behalf of the reader.

It is this sort of aesthetic that bestselling pseudonymous author Lian Hearn seeks to capture Across the Nightingale Floor, the first in her Tales of the Otori trilogy. The novel takes place in an almost-Japan, in a reimagining of the country that has taken a very small, very cautious shuffle to one side or the other. Imagine that you have taken your train one station too far: when you alight, everything is familiar, but not quite. Across the Nightingale Floor is the literary counterpart of this situation.

The book's opening recalls Shusako Endo's Silence, which tells of the historical persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan: the Hidden Christians. In Hearn's slightly canted take on Edo-era Japan, the Hidden Christians are instead simply the Hidden, small enclaves of people living quiet, unremarkable lives. However, given the war-like nature of the times, with the brazen battle for supremacy among the various feudal clans, and the ongoing persecution of the Hidden for their sacrilegious beliefs, it is inevitable that the careful harmony of their existence will one day come to an end. And it does, as the warriors of the Tohan clan descend upon the village of young Tomasu, indiscriminately destroying everything in sight. Everything except Tomasu, who is rescued by the warrior Otori Shigeru, who has been wandering the lands of the Tohan with retribution in mind: his brother, Takeru, was recently murdered at the hands of the Tohan, who are led by the callous Iida.

While Shigeru's actions initially seem serendipitous, coincidental, they begin to take on further meaning when he returns home, announcing that Tomasu be renamed Takeo, and become his heir. Tomasu is quickly integrated into life in the Otori home, receiving training in all manner of disciplines from Shigeru's close friend, the taciturn and impassive Muto Kenji. As his training continues, however, Tomasu exhibits certain other skills: an uncanny sense of hearing, an eerily light step, and an ability to be almost in two places at once. Shigeru, who has an inkling of Tomasu's true provenance, soon calls upon Tomasu to test his tread along a nightingale floor, a floor designed to sing with warning when trod upon. The same sort of floor installed in the home of Iida, Shigeru's mortal enemy.

The subsequent account of the political manoeuvrings of the Otori and the Tohan is fascinating, and it's almost chilling to watch this slow game of chess unfold. The drive of revenge and the fierce challenge of loyalty are both key themes in the novel, and Hearn deals with them deftly and laconically. The spare brush strokes she uses to draw her characters and the environment are on the most part wielded with great effect: we see the slippery darkness of persimmon seeds, the flitting cameo of a hummingbird, the musk of a horse. But where this approach tends to fail is with the characterisation.

Unlike Kawabata, who could skilfully condense an entire history into a simple gesture or meaningful glance, Hearn's minimalist efforts sometimes result in caricature, particularly in terms of the minor characters, as well as Iida, who feels somewhat diminished as a character. Hearn's bent towards elision and suggestion is also problematic when it comes to the book's romantic elements: Tomasu's forbidden love with the Lady Shirakawa comes across as childish and mawkish. Similarly, Shigeru's relationship with the formidable Lady Maruyama never feels more than notional. Neither, unfortunately, does Maruyama herself, which is a shame, as she is by far one of the more intriguing characters of the book. The bare bones approach to exposition can also result in some moments feeling, conversely, narratively dense. This is particularly true of the more action-oriented scenes, such as the book's beginning. In contrast, the quieter, more reflective vignettes ooze with narrative confidence, and provide a much-needed contrast to the denser action.

Perhaps another problem of the book, although whether you perceive this to be an issue or not will likely depend on your tastes as a reader, is the fact that Tomasu never rises above being a pawn manipulated by those around him. Lady Shirakawa, Tomasu's forbidden love, similarly struggles with this lack of agency. While some may see the fact that neither of the main characters, or indeed, any of those within the book, really own their own lives, others may feel frustrated by the same.

In all, though, Across the Nightingale Floor is a beautifully wrought introduction to what promises to be a thoughtful and engaging series. Hearn writes compassionately and with a careful eye for detail, and her minimalist writing style means that every gesture, every word of dialogue is something far deeper than the finite surface of a well. Her depiction of an historical almost-Japan is utterly believable, and it's difficult not to fall under the spell of her writing.

200px 4 stars.svg  Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Purchase Across the Nightingale Floor

Other books by Lian Hearn:

grass for his pillow lian hearn Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearnbrilliance of the moon lian hearn Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearnharsh cry of the heron lian hearn Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearnheavens net is wide lian hearn Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Grass for his Pillow Brilliance of the Moon Harsh Cry of the Heron Heavens Net is Wide

No comments