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Blossoms and Shadows

by Lian Hearn

The story is set in Japan and begins in the late 19th Century. A thoroughly researched historical novel, and an important book, it might be best avoided by featherbrains. The 60-long list of characters at the beginning is a great help to the reader and is a clue to the richness and measure of the narrative. The author is not Japanese, but her lifelong delight in, and understanding of, Japan has already brought forth the TALES OF THE OTORI series which have been worldwide best-sellers.

BLOSSOMS AND SHADOWS is a deeply romantic love story, but Lian Hearn has more in common with Shakespeare than Barbara Cartland. The heroine of the story, Isataki Tsuru, is the daughter of a good and respected doctor and she longs to become a doctor herself. But she is also a daughter of her time and will be expected to marry a man of her father's choosing, produce many sons, and bring honour to her family. Her struggle to be treated otherwise leads her into great danger.

For centuries Japan had chosen to be isolated from the rest of the world: her remote islands, peopled by perhaps thirty million souls, are divided into over two hundred and sixty domains, racked by turmoil and civil war. Comets, earthquakes, famines and epidemics plague and amaze its citizens. Nevertheless, the strongest instinct of both aristocrats and commoners is to revere the Emperor and expel all foreigners, and above all to resist colonisation by the West.

But in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 an alliance of young sumarai overthrew the semi-feudal and incompetent government, and so began the birth of modern Japan. It is in this setting that the lovers prove their love.

Part of the Itasaki Tsuru story comes to pass in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which gives an ironic and poignant touch to the novel for today's readers of BLOSSOMS AND SHADOWS: had Tsuru lived to be over eighty she and her family might have suffered the inferno and horror of the Atomic bomb. Perhaps she and her grandchildren will be the subject of a sequel to this book.

Paula McMaster

Published by Quercus, 400pp.

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