GRASS FOR HIS PILLOW
Lian Hearn (Hodder, 2003) ISBN: 0 7336 1563 5
Taking up directly after the events of Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow finds Kaede in a state of hypnotic sleep and Takeo working for the ninja-like Tribe which has claimed him for their own. Neither is now happy with their lot. Takeo has sworn himself to the Tribe, as well as to an up-and-coming warlord, but desires only to honour Otori Shigeru’s wishes that he should claim leadership of the Otori clan. Kaede, meanwhile, longs for Takeo. She is certain he will return to her, yet has her own doubts.
This novel is slower-paced than the previous one. Much of the narrative, especially early on, is focused on Kaede and her own struggles to maintain her estate and family in the wake of her shame and her father’s resultant suicide. Events of the previous book have left her the heiress to a contested, woman-dominated domain which at some point she must also attend to. Readers may find Grass for his Pillow difficult to get into; much like Sansa Stark in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, her battles are not fought with swords but with wits. It is therefore possible to miss Kaede’s manipulations and her hard-won victories. In the fantasy genre especially, if women are not battle-hungry heroines out to prove they’re just as good as any man, they are far too often perceived as weak, their stories uninteresting. Kaede’s strength is quiet and subtle–and, true, much of it is hinged on her faith in Takeo and his love for her–but it is very present. Hearn has been noted as calling Kaede a tribute to all the women in samurai family histories, listed only as “woman”.
Takeo’s story is also slower than in Across the Nightingale Floor. He is trained in the ways of the Tribe, travelling with them and learning, though never trusting his caretakers. He falls in lust with a Tribe girl. He concludes presently that he cannot keep his oath to the Tribe, and that he will return to his life amongst the warrior class, fleeing through the wilderness in the depths of winter. Meanwhile, he also comes across members of the Hidden, members of the Christian-like sect he was born into. Reminded of the teachings of his youth, he becomes even more conflicted. He has three very different inheritances which will all shape his destiny–the honour, valour and violence of the warrior class; the amoral, mercinary lifestyle and exciting abilities of the Hidden; and the peaceful ways of the persecuted Hidden.
While Grass for his Pillow is more slowly paced, it serves an important role within the trilogy of solidifying plot-lines and revealing the overall arc. As in the previous novel, the characters are well drawn, and we are able to enjoy them in greater detail here, seeing how they think when they have time to breathe. There is a sense of the great danger both Takeo and Kaede are in, and the question looms of whether they will be reuinited, though this is not especially a mystery.
Anecdata from people to whom I have recommended the books suggests that this second book is where the series lost readers. I suspect this is mostly because of the pacing and the focus on Kaede. It is disappointing, but somewhat understandable, that after the excitement of Across the Nightingale Floor, the introspection of Grass for his Pillow would dismay readers. Grass for his Pillow also feels less fluidly constructed than the previous book. This too is understandable. Across the Nightingale Floor was written quickly, whereas I suspect the second two books were constructed more painstakingly. I would nonetheless recommend Grass for his Pillow wholeheartedly.
*the title is the second line of a poem from 10th century Japanese poet, Lady Ise (hanging from the branches/ of a green willow tree/ the spring rain/ is a/ thread of pearls)