ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR (TALES OF THE OTORI BOOK ONE)
Lian Hearn* (Hodder, 2002) ISBN: 0 7336 1565 1
As a child and teenager, for no discernible reason, I was a total weeabo. I loved Japan. I loved Japanese clothing, I loved learning about Japanese language and culture, and I was determined to go to Japan as soon as I could. I don’t know where this obsession originated. The obvious contenders are Sailor Moon and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a tv series and book respectively, which were likely my first encounters with Japan–even though I believe the latter was written by an American. I’ve been to Japan twice now, and I’ve also made a conscious effort to ramp down my adoration because I’ve learned that fetishising cultures like that is not a cool or respectful thing to do. Nonetheless, Across the Nightingale Floor, first in the Tales of the Otori trilogy**, represents a perfect union of three of my great loves–Japanese culture and history (albeit in a fictionalised Japan-like society), fantasy, and beautiful writing.
Suggested to me by the school librarian, Across the Nightingale Floor is the story of a young boy’s narrow escape from the genocide of his Christian-like people, and his entry into the world of the warrior class. Shedding his old name and becoming Takeo, he is taken under the wing of Lord Otori Shigeru. Shigeru is a noble figure who appears to be trying to move on with his life after tragic events in his past, which resulted amongst other things in his disinheritance from clan leadership. Takeo becomes mute following his trauma and is derided as an idiot by many around him. It soon becomes clear that Shigeru wants Takeo to be part of a plot to bring down the ruthless warlord Iida Sadamu, the man responsible for Shigeru’s dishonour and for the ruin of Takeo’s village. Into the mix is also thrown the Clan, whose murky allegiances and strange powers make them both fascinating and dangerous.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Shirakawa Kaede, the daughter of a low-ranking warrior family, who is journeying with a long-lost kinswoman, Lady Maruyama Naomi, to her home after her mother’s death. It is no secret that Takeo and Kaede fall in love, but that their romance is forbidden. Soon Kaede too becomes embroiled in the plot against Iida. Neither Kaede nor Takeo, however, will readily accept being pawns.
Across the Nightingale Floor was written quickly, and this shows in the gripping pace and fluidity of prose. It is an effortless read and doesn’t appear to have been much more difficult to write. Though the beginning of a trilogy, the novel works as a complete story. The characters are well-drawn, the rules of the game are clearly but not obviously laid out, and the story is made exciting through beautifully executed twists and reveals. Because the tale is told by Takeo in the first person, with shades of his future self showing through on occasion, we can assume he survives the events***, but this does not remove tension. Lives are not all that is at stake.
If you’ve ever asked me about books, I’ve probably recommended this one to you. I may have attempted to foist it on you. This book is, as far as I’m concerned, near perfect. The only flaw I can think of is the rest of the trilogy. That might sound a bit hard on the subsequent books. I will go into more detail in reviews to come.
*I have been informed that I neglected to mention that Lian Hearn is in fact the pen-name of Australian author Gillian Rubenstein. The Hearn pseudonym appears on all of her Japan-related novels, including The Tales of the Otori books and the straight historical tale, Blossoms and Shadows.
**The original trilogy has since been supplemented by a sequel, set some 15 years later, and a prequel set up to the very point at which Shigeru meets Takeo.
***I’m certain there are books where the first-person narrator is telling the story from their deathbed, or from the afterlife, or whose last chapter is told by a relative who had discovered their diary or something. There’s probably a page on tv tropes about it. It is not an effect I like because it reads like it was done for lazy shock value (“I bet you weren’t expecting this!”). Unless you’ve got a really compelling reason, don’t do it.