HEAVEN’S NET IS WIDE
At last, we’re here, Heaven’s Net is Wide, the prequel to the Tales of the Otori trilogy. And, it should be added, I am sufficiently backlogged that I feel comfortable in saying my reviews will now be a weekly event. You may celebrate in whatever way you feel appropriate.
Since this book came out at a time when I was still largely ignorant of the true wonders of the internet, it was as a surprise. A wonderful surprise. Otori Shigeru is one of my favourite fictional characters OF ALL TIME. Good and handsome, using his supposed naivety and social shaming as a tool of guile in a society where the long game is seriously undervalued, Shigeru is also touched deeply by grief and a need for revenge. This prequel tells the story we have received hints of in the previous novels: Shigeru’s doomed marriage; the doomed Otori campaigns against the Tohan clan; the doomed love affair between Shigeru and handsome young heiress Maruyama Naomi. You may sense a theme here. Don’t let that put you off — the story, though relentlessly tragic, is beautifully told, and even knowing the ultimate conclusion of all Shigeru’s struggles did not prevent me enjoying it.
Heaven’s Net is Wide feels like a return to the lyrical, pensive narration of Across the Nightingale Floor, despite the use of the third person. Or perhaps the problem I’ve had with the books thus far is that I simply loved Shigeru so much that his absence in later books is what made them disappointing. I do like many of the other Tales of the Otori characters, but none of them moved me as much as Shigeru.
It should be noted that Hearn does not fall into the obvious traps when writing the characters of Shigeru’s young wife and concubine. There are a few areas where Hearn needed to tread carefully and she has managed that superbly. Naturally there is a dislike that arises between the wife and concubine, despite the very careful handling of cultural difference that has been one of the series’ greatest strengths. To be honest, the character Akane, Shigeru’s concubine, is not as strong in my mind as his wife Moe, though Moe is the demure and quiet lady wife — not a stereotype, but a product of her upbringing. However, the obvious route of romantic jealousy is not taken; things are more complicated than that. This is pleasing, especially given the norms of western pop culture, which would generally pit the good and loving wife against the home-wrecking other woman. Moe doesn’t really like anyone, and her disappointment at her lot in life embitters her every interaction. This is only worsened by a loveless marriage and difficulties conceiving.
The other difficulty is that both Moe and Akane might have been rivals to Lady Maruyama, who the reader already knows is the woman Shigeru is fated to love. The reader’s natural instinct is thus to dislike these women — this is an observable phenomenon in fandom “politics”. Perhaps some fans do take exception to Moe and Akane. Moe is, in particular, a difficult person but a well-written character, and I doubt she has many friends in the Otori fandom. However, Hearn has worked hard to make sure all of her characters are believable, complex beings.
There is very little else for me to say here. I love this book. It is heartbreaking to the extent that I don’t know if I’ll be able to read it again. I should say, I suppose, that I do find it difficult to be genuinely moved by a book these days. Any book that manages the feat earns a special place in my (apparently cold, jaded) heart. Both Across the Nightingale Floor and Heaven’s Net is Wide achieved it, and I thank Hearn (or Rubenstein) for writing two novels that engrossed me to that extent. Please do go and read the Tales of the Otori and Heaven’s Net is Wide. I’ll leave the sequel, The Harsh Cry of the Heron, to your own choice*.
*Well, obviously it’s your choice either way, but let’s pretend I have that power. Do it. Do it now.