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Sunday, June 8, 2008


Passionate romance in old Japan

THE LAST CONCUBINE by Leslie Downer. London: Bantam Press, 2008, 480 pp., £12.99 (cloth)

The beautiful young Sachi grew up in the mountains of rural Japan, but she always seemed to herself more than a mere farm girl, samurai stock though she was. As the book jacket puts it: "Sachi has always felt different, her pale skin and fine features setting her apart from her friends and family."

Just how different she is proves to be the subject of this long, intricate novel, which the publisher calls "an epic evocation of a country in revolution, of a young woman's quest to find out who she really is."

The year is 1861 and the revolution is the civil war between the shogunate, the side where Sachi finds herself, and the royalists who have taken the emperor as their supreme commander.

When young, Sachi was snatched from her rural retreat and sent to Edo, to the shogun's harem, a warren of 3,000 women and only one man, the shogun himself. Among all these Sachi, as befits the heroine of such a novel as this, is chosen as first concubine. (Not really the last, however, despite the title of her saga. Both the Meiji and the Taisho emperors had concubines, though just how much use they were put to is debatable.)

The shogun, however, knows what to do in seducing Sachi: "Gently he stroked, then began to move his hand lower. 'So fine, so soft . . . like a flower,' he murmured."

Now, no longer a virgin, Sachi gives herself completely to the attractive young shogun, which makes his death (poisoned it seems) all the more tragic for her. Nonetheless, she devotes herself to his memory, and embraces the shogunate's cause for better or for worse.

"No matter what happened, no matter what she felt, she must strive to maintain a placid, unruffled surface, like a pond becoming still again after a stone has been thrown in."

The stone, however, is a rather large one — the incursion of the southern clans, the sack of the palace, the resulting civil war, the flight of Sachi and her faithful attendants — and all the resulting twists and turns of the epic saga of "the last concubine."

These include a meaningful encounter with an unkempt but attractively Heathcliff-like masterless ronin. When it came to such men, "She felt a strong fascination for these unfamiliar creatures with their odd, slightly repellent odor. Men though they were, they were of much lower status, so much so that the fact she was a woman and they men was rarely relevant."

Or so it seems at first — but it is a law governing such epic sagas as this that the well-born heroine should eventually end up in such alien arms. It was thus in "Wuthering Heights" that Catherine Earnshaw is last seen in the hirsute embrace of the lowly Heathcliff, and this is what romance heroines have been doing ever since.

Emily Bronte's recipe has proved a lasting one and it continues to nurture, at its lower end, the Harlequin romance series and, at its higher end, this exciting historical novel. One could call it a "bodice-ripper" except that the ladies of the shogun wore no bodices — how about "obi-slasher"?

Throughout, author Lesley Downer knows just what she is doing. She is writing a historically accurate romance, she is drawing on her knowledge of women's lives in Japan — as author of "Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World" and "Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Seduced the West" — and she is respecting the fairy-tale conventions that govern her world. The final revelation of just who Sachi really is satisfies all of the strictures that construct "Cinderella."

Designed as a generic publication, genus "historical romance," it does its job so well that one can see looming, a large, long film version, with some fine, popular, local star in the title role, if a Japanese is directing, or Meryl Streep if it's Stephen Spielberg.

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