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The Gardens of Kyoto: A Novel Hardcover – April 20, 2001
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Nothing is quite as it should be in this first novel by Kate Walbert, author of the celebrated story collection Where She Went. Set in wartime Philadelphia, the story is told by Ellen, a character inhabiting a rather complex narrative device. Namely, she's looking back on the war years, from some future vantage point, recounting her experiences to her child. This framing device allows Walbert to create a novel in which the past is neither as innocent nor as simple as the reader assumes.
Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, lives for her annual visit to see her cousin Randall. Something in his odd-duck imaginings speaks to her, and their bond is cemented by the fact that they both have red hair. (Relationships have been built on less.) Yet this portrait of Randall is shadowed by loss; we know from the first that he will be killed in the war. Small wonder that nostalgia sweetens Ellen's account of their friendship: "Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper.... One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark."
Ellen tells of meeting the father of her child, of her sister's disappearance, of a friend's abortion. These are in fact the story's recurrent motifs: vanishing women, endangered children, and men permanently damaged by war. As for the titular gardens, they make but a brief appearance, in a book Randall bequests to the narrator. Yet Walbert's description of them lends an extra resonance to her themes of distance and loss, even as we discover that Ellen has been deceiving herself--and us--all along. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
"I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?" So begins this ethereal debut novel, a romantic, bittersweet tale set in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, by short-story writer Walbert (Where She Went), a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winner. Walbert's protagonist is Ellen, a shy, sensitive and somewhat lost young woman who is completely enraptured by her cousin Randall, a bookish boy with red hair just like Ellen's. As a child, Ellen sees Randall only once a year, at Easter, but she is so in love with him that her infatuation affects every relationship she has in the years following his early death. After Randall is killed, his father sends Ellen a package containing Randall's diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto. In elegant, restrained prose, Walbert recounts how Ellen slowly pieces together Randall's life and unknowingly links it to her own, her fixation infiltrating every aspect of her existence. Even when she falls in love again, with a thoughtful young lieutenant named Henry stationed in Korea, her relationship is half make-believe: she intercepts the letters Henry writes to her friend Daphne and often finds herself picturing Henry as Randall. Walbert writes delicately on weighty themes, making a lyrical examination of the war's effect on men and women and on unrequited love. This is a haunting, thoughtful work that, without lapsing into clich, depicts the sad realities of love and war. (Apr. 2)Forecast: With its beautiful cover (evocative of Memoirs of a Geisha) and dreamy title, this book will do well as a selection for higher-end women's reading groups, though it may be a bit lofty for some.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Recently, I've discovered several other excellent books whose major theme is also how the protagonist deals with grief. Among them are "Garden of Evening Mists" by Tan Twan Eng,"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen Joy Fowler and Marilynne Robinson's "Lila." What all these novels have in common is that the grieving process is unique, that it is "seen" through then eyes of a female heroine, and that all the novels are complex, thus allowing the authors to display their full range of literary virtuosity. Any one of these novels is prize-worthy. All of them should be on your List of Novels to Read Before I Die.
For a rich and beautiful reading experience with many layered emotions, events, and temporal locations Walbert's novel is a must read.
Like her other novels I've read, A Short History of Women and Where She Went, The Gardens of Kyoto weaves stories within stories. It is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale during and following the second world war. Ellen is a young girl, growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, in love with her cousin Randall, whom we learn in the first sentence was killed on Iwo Jima. The rest of the book moves back and forth in time, mingling their tragic story with that of Ruby and Sterling, Daphne and Gideon, Ellen and John.
The narrative is written in stream of consciousness, jumping from one memory to another as she narrates her history to a person identified only at the the end of the novel. The whole novel moves at a slow pace, there is no rush of action or emotion, no crescendo, and yet it is perfect in this. It is not a story that would lend itself well to a huge reveal or adventure. And this is exactly what I love about it. It is a novel that you read simply for the joy of a beautifully written word.
The entire story is layed out as if it is being told to the narrator's daughter, and we come to find out that it is the explanation of this young mother's life and why she made the choices that brought her daughter about.
Kate Walbert's writing is, in a word, wistful. This is the sort of book that it's painful to reach the end of, because by the last page you feel so deeply connected to the characters you don't want to stop hearing about them. For anyone who read and enjoyed this book, I recommend Walbert's other novel, "Where She Went" -- it is written much in the style of "Gardens", and actually has a few similar plot devices.
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follow what is happening and to whom but Walbert does create...Read more