#EmptyShelf 2016 #9: The Last Concubine

the-last-concubineWell, reading in the evening seems to be gathering pace! This time it’s 620 pages, and yes, I’ve read them all! The Last Concubine, written by Lesley Downer, is another novel set against a well-researched historical background, set in 1860s Japan. The author had lived in Japan, and done a lot of research, and a deep sense of Japanese culture is infused throughout the book. Sachi is taken from her adopted village, settles into Edo Castle, chosen as the concubine of the final shogan, just as war breaks out – and we see the journey of survival, of coping with meeting all kinds of ‘strange habits’ and ‘strange technology’ as women, who would have lived rich, pampered (but I would say I would find preeeeety dull) and very protected lives, are exposed to the ‘real world’ – as Edo becomes Tokyo under a new regime.

Throughout the book much reference to hierarchies, and the stiff and honourable codes of the samurai (of which Sachi trained a samurai warrior woman of the castle), and the incomprehension as ‘foreigners’ (Victorian British) introduce new ideas. On being told about the train – the speed, the size, the smoke, the steam, etc:

Sachi stared down at her small white hands neatly placed one on top of the other on her kimono skirts. She couldn’t imagine wanting to travel so quickly, without stopping to see the famous views. Surely the whole point was the journey? That was why people travelled? (p476)

They then continue to talk about the newly invented telegraph – fascinating how the Englishman tries to explain it:

When you see watchfires on the hills and you know there’s a fire or an army approaching. You know? It’s like that. To pass a message across a long distance. But much more precise. You tap out a message here in Edo and someone – for example in Osake – receives it immediately. At the same moment.

‘Sounds like black magic,’ said Taki, disapprovingly

Sachi pursed her lips. She had heard the stories that went round about foreigners oractising magic but she had never paid much attention. But what Eswards was saying really did sound sinister. An iron monster she could imagine. It had something in common with the big ships and the cannon fire she had heard with her own ears. But the sending of message that were not spoken by a voice or written on paper…

and wonders why anyone would want to send a message faster. Tatsuemon, a samurai, compares it with weapons. With swords, the best man wins, and there is much glory. With rifles, one cannot see the faces, but those with the rifles win, so changes happen. As someone fascinated in cultural change… those pages really struck me!

Right towards the end (p607), as Sachi reflects back on some of the actions she has witnessed, she thinks

Everyone had known what they had to do and had done it, no matter what, without stopping to think about whether they wanted to do it or whether it was even the right thing to do. They had done their duty.

As I’ve been reading many reflective essays by students considering their values, where they have learnt them from, and the ethical theories that fit most closely – the theory of duty re-echoed. Somewhere also in the book, less noted, a chapter finishes as she meets a man – and it finishes “I am your father”… too much Star Wars going around recently for that not to jump out. Anyway, another good read!