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Like father, like daughter: the life of an artist working in her parent's shadow.

The Ghost Brush

Katherine Gorier


398 pages, softcover

ISBN 9781554686438

HISTORICAL FICTION IS AN UNFORGIVING medium. As with any kind of fiction, authors of this genre must build imaginary worlds and weave all their linguistic magic to ensure that their tales will resonate with their readers. They cannot, however, entirely give free rein to their imagination. To no small extent, they must confine their stories to known historical territory. To the grey areas, the shadows on which historians have been unable to shed enough light, they will of course add some colour. For dramatic purposes, they will speculate on what may have happened or how people may have thought or behaved. We will certainly not blame them if every historical detail is not accurate or proven. But they must ensure that the overall reconstruction is credible.

Based on those criteria, The Ghost Brush, Katherine Govier's second fictional foray into Japanese culture after Three Views of Crystal Water, is a genuine achievement. Her portrayal of 19thcentury Japanese society, especially its artistic demimonde, is rich and the relationships between the various historical characters well developed. Only a few awkward constructions break the spell here and there, thereby preventing the reader from being completely drawn in.

Govier's heroine is Katsushika Oei, one of the daughters of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), a painter and prolific ukiyoe artist who, thanks in part to his brilliant series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, has become one of the best-known Japanese artists in the West. While we know little about the real Oei (born ca. 1800) and her role in her father's studio, there is enough historical material to allow Govier to speculate in a plausible manner on her contribution to Hokusai's output.

Under Govier's pen, Oei is a curious young girl, bolshie at times, not pretty, but "smart [and] ready with her tongue." Early on, she develops a very close relationship with her father. Perched on his shoulders, she accompanies him on his trips to the Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district of Edo, as Tokyo was then known, where Hokusai goes to visit his mistress or sketch anything that draws his attention, from townsmen to elaborately dressed courtesans on one of their regular parades. Presently, Oei strikes a friendship with some of the female denizens of the area and spends much time in their company, listening to their gripes and the frustrations that life throws at them. A typical childhood she did not get.

Born to a nonconformist artist who despised money and raised in a milieu of dilettanti, Oei unsurprisingly develops into a young woman with an unconventional mien for her time. Her brief and loveless marriage is a failure--she much prefers the risk of being a single woman in a man's world than cooking for her husband--but she finds solace and support in the company of a few witty and cultivated men. Govier interestingly positions Oei within the orbit of numerous Japanese artists such as Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822), a writer in the comic tradition, and Eisen (1790-1848), an author and painter of samurai background, both of whom she will develop intimate liaisons with. Even Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a doctor by trade, diplomat by circumstance and collector of everything Japanese by passion, will enter Oei's life. Oei mostly strikes these relationships on her own terms and, while none of them lasts for a variety of reasons, each is fulfilling in a certain way.

In Hokusai's studio, Oei gradually learns her trade. She grinds pigments, studies composition and looks on as her father deals with pesky publishers. Later on, when Hokusai disappears on one of his frequent outings, she holds the fort. Slowly, she grows into her own as an artist, and, late in Hokusai's life, when old age and palsy slow him down considerably, much of his work is--in Govier's novel--Oei's.

But in life, at least from what we can tell, as in fiction, Oei never really comes out of Hokusai's shadow. She never will be able to resolve the tension between, on the one hand, her own aspirations and, on the other, her status as a woman in a feudal society and the daughter of one of the greatest artists of her era. She seeks recognition and would like to sign her own works, using her own seal, but never comes around to discussing this with her father. In her sixties, after her father's death and Japan's opening to the West, when Oei meets Siebold once again and has one more opportunity to tell him and others about her role, she shies away. She cannot resolve herself to explaining that much of the work Siebold acquired, or that is believed to be Hokusai's, is of her own hand. She has been Hokusai's ghost for so many years, has she lost her vim? "I was afraid of myself" is all she offers.

Govier must have done a significant amount of research to complete her book and the result is a rewarding sojourn in a fascinating era of Japanese history. It is not entirely flawless, however. For example, Govier's attempt to convey, in English, the peculiar speech patterns of Yoshiwara courtesans is, at best, distracting--she makes some of them sound like illiterate late-1980s MuchMusic VJs. Describing a friend who just woke up, one exclaims: "Lookit her! She'z so, like, stiff. She'z, like, a lady! She'll, like, never gedda man. No one'z, like, ever gonna wan' her" The historical progression is also, at times, a little clumsy, especially when Japan starts opening up to the West. At one point, the Black Ships of Commodore Perry are sighted off the coast--an event that Oei witnesses. Next thing we know, Yokohama is flooded with gaijin and the telegraph is in use. What happened in between? Govier should have fleshed out these events more substantially to smooth out the unfolding of her historical background.

Throughout the book, Govier lets her imagination loose and speculates on how Hokusai may have had some of his artistic ideas. One of her most intriguing trouvailles (or are there historical grounds for it?) relates to how Hokusai got the idea for his famous series of prints of Mount Fuji. During their first encounter in Edo in the 1820s, Siebold tells Oei that on his way over from Nagasaki, where he resided with the Dutch trade mission, he hid a compass in his hat, which he took out every now and then to surreptitiously measure the height of Mount Fuji from different vantage points--what he was really doing, of course, was measuring the lay of the land. When Oei told the story to her father, both had a very good laugh: crazy foreigners! But it did get the old man thinking...

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian foreign service officer who served in Japan and Afghanistan. He is currently preparing for an upcoming assignment in China. The views presented here are his own.
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Title Annotation:The Ghost Brush
Author:Laflamme, Martin
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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