Thursday, 3 September 2015

The snow kimono by Mark Henshaw

This month’s novel was read by all the participants at our monthly meeting and many decided that it was much more fun than last time’s rather unusual book.

We began the night with some insights into the author – Kate heard him talk at a local bookshop recently about his work. The first chapter originated in 1990 and was published in an anthology. He was fortunate to spend 2 years in France on a scholarship but he has not visited Japan.

When he retired from the National Gallery in 2012 he began writing from the first chapter until he got to the end and later dropped the ‘Algerian chapter’ into the sequence. A Japanese friend did fact checking for him and many of us were surprised how well he can write about Japan. However he has worked with Japanese prints for many years at the Gallery as a curator for prints and drawings. His  visual orientation is in evidence in this novel – a reader can easily ‘see’ the landscape he describes so well. Those of us who have visited Japan thought he captured it beautifully.

Some members agreed that the Algerian chapter felt out of place but agreed that it was necessary as it added a complexity to the French detective Jovert, as we wouldn’t have known the importance of the first chapter without it. We commented also upon the fact that Jovert’s name is so similar to Javert from Les Miserables.  (Javert is 'the police inspector who becomes obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of the escaped convict Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables. From Wikipedia)

As we often do, we spent the evening trying to talk about scenes and characters as well as major themes and subtexts. One member felt ‘it’ was about the different ways the East and West perceive ‘things’.

Other themes :

  • Lies and truths: what is truth?
  • Memories: story-telling is moderated by memories, we doubt our storytellers? Henshaw is not documenting geography.
  • Meaning of life: can you understand your life as seen by another person?  This is mixed up with identity, especially in relation to the confession by Omura/Katsuo? (see chapter on Katsuo – ‘he used to entertain us with his impersonations’, loc 834, 23 % on Kindle)
  • Tension between the sexes: Role of women, in Japan, subjugated role of Geishas as well as women in ordinary society juxtaposed with Jovert’s wife’s post natal depression and her rejection of Jovert. Sachiko’s foster mother and her role in trying to find out what happened to her husband is in strong contrast to the usual role of women in this patriarchal society
  • Identity: Role of father/grandfather; shifting roles, including incest by Katsuo.


The twist at the end of the book was one of the most fascinating parts of our conversation this month. Was Tadashi Omura real or was he actually Katsuo Ikeda?  One member was not convinced that they were actually 2 people.  In many ways they seem like two sides of personalities – good versus bad. The passport found by Jovert after the death must be evidence that the inspector was misled all the time as was the reader?  Was the real Omura still living in Japan unaware that he was being portrayed yet again? Or had he met a sticky end?

There was also mention that Katsuo and Jovert had similarities and were not complementary characters. Both had killed people and had affairs, and felt guilty for their actions. Both had loved and lost too.

The scene on the bus driving in the terrible storm and snow was a very powerful one and we discussed it at some length. The knowledge gained later that Katsuo was on the bus seeing the accident when the boy was killed is vital for the story.

Sue had investigated the Text Publishing notes and questions and these were thought provoking. For instance:  What red herrings are put in to mislead the reader ? One clue which we picked up was the continual typing of ‘Omura’ heard by Jovert late into the night – more pertaining to a novelist such as Katsuo rather than a retired legal person – debatable? And this ‘Omura’ was always taking notes. Another clue was that this ‘Omura’ was not always complimentary about Katsuo but is this just part of the confidence trick being played on Jovert?  The brutal scene of the death of Hideo, was more believable coming from the true Omura?

Sue likened the writing to Ishiguro. She believes Henshaw conveys the same sort of sensibility. For instance, Henshaw describes the environment in a matter of fact way even though the scene may be horrific eg Sachiko’s death in the snow. He is lyrical and beautifully descriptive without being flowery.
Interestingly, some members felt it was such a complicated book that it was important to reread the first few chapters. One member did a descriptive list of the characters in order to keep the names and scenes - in a logical way - in her head. Others of us just ran with it -- fiction after all !

Another mention was the ‘hoax’ perpetrated by Katsuo. Apparently there was a poetry hoax in the 1990s in Japan? This is contrasted with the humiliation of Katsuo’s former teacher, Todo. His re-appearance towards the end may or may not be true – he could have been dead?

We all liked the language – succinct and meaningful in short direct sentences. I think you can feel that a lot of thought has gone into this aspect of the novel, probably as much as the plot.

Old fashioned letters play apart in this novel – we considered the one in the beginning to Jovert and the consequences of letters.

Is the snow kimono the central story of the novel? It is  certainly one of them, but there is so much more. That particular story has to do with women being groomed as well as wearing a creation of her grandmother’s (ancestral worship ?) and the Japanese love of exquisite beauty. Women as commodity? Is Sachiko a sacrificial virgin?  We were not sure.     
A final comment was most complimentary that this was the best book we have read for a long time!

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