Japan in 1857 is in turmoil. Internal divisions mean the country is on the brink of civil war, whilst after centuries of isolation, the country has also opened its doors to the west. In the midst of this instability, Tsuru, a doctor’s daughter, wishes to study medicine, but the only expectation her father has for her is to marry.
After the hugely successful TALES OF THE OTORI series, Lian Hearn returns with a very different kind of novel in Blossoms and Shadows (2010). The evocative setting of Japan is still used as a backdrop, but this story is a historical one, largely without the fantastical elements of the Otori series.
Tsuru has harboured an interest for medicine since helping her father in his own medical practice. As a woman, she would never be seriously considered in the profession, but her father’s patients come to know and trust her and she quickly realises she has a skill.
However, in the midst of civil unrest, Tsuru is unsure how long her position of stability with her father will last. Her parents are desperate for her to marry, though Tsuru fears this will be the end of her role as a pseudo-doctor. What’s more, her uncle goes to join a radical teacher preaching equality and learning that go against the samurai’s code.
After a suitable match is found, Tsuru is not only able to continue practising medicine, but also begins to question her role as a woman. When a mentally ill patient requests that she dress as a man, she finds that she likes the role. She begins to question the limitations set on her as a woman, limitations that have restricted her for the entirety of her life, and gradually adapts the characteristics of men.
Tsuru finds herself plagued by visions. She is able to see the eventual deaths some of her colleagues and comrades will face, often seeing gruesome flashes of mortal wounds and injuries. Her husband rationalises the visions and tells Tsuru to record them as she would a patient’s symptoms, but these touches of horror serve to emphasise the brutal massacres and crimes of the samurai during the civil war.
One of the problems of the novel is that Hearn’s story is simply too large. Tsuru’s story is compelling in itself, but it is interspersed with multiple threads of minor characters who often have little impact on the story proper. This period in Japanese history is immensely fraught and complicated, and one cannot help but feel that Hearn has been caught up somewhere between history and fiction, not quite able to do either justice.
Complicated names and events confuse matters further. Whereas in the TALES OF THE OTORI series there were maps and family trees of the various tribes and their supernatural powers, Blossoms and Shadows has neither, despite being a more complex and far-reaching story. The characters are also less engaging than assassins of the Otori series, though Tsuru’s challenging of female norms is a great pleasure to read.
Blossoms and Shadows still evokes the breathtaking scenery of Japan, even if the story and characters are far less vivid than the world they inhabit. Fans of the OTORI series looking for a similar book will not find what they are looking for, but perhaps those who are willing to persevere with a dense historical cast and a flimsy plot will.