Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer

How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it?

An epic novel closely based on historical events, The Last Concubine is the story of a shogun, a princess and the three thousand women of the women’s palace - all of whom really existed - and of the civil war that brought their way of life to an end ...

It is 1861.. Growing up deep in the mountains fo rural Japan, Sachi has always felt different, her pale skin and fine features setting her apart from her friends and family.

Then, when she is just eleven, an imperial princess passes through her village and sweeps her off to the women's palace in the great city of Edo. Bristling with intrigue and erotic rivalries, the palace is home to three thousand women and only one man - the young shogun. Sachi is chosen as his concubine.

But Japan is changing. Black Ships have come from the West, bringing foreigners eager to add Japan to their colonial empires. As civil war erupts, Sachi flees for her life.

Rescued by a rebel warrior, she finds unknown feelings stirring within her. But before she dare dream of a life with him, Sachi must unravel the mystery of her own origins – a mystery that encompasses a wrong so terrible that it threatens to destroy her ....

Set in one of the most tumultuous eras in Japanese history, Sachi's story is a potent mix of adventure and high romance. From the timeless beauty of the women's palace in Edo to bloody battles fought outside its walls, The Last Concubine is an epic evocation of a country in revolution, and of a young woman's quest to find out who she really is.

From the timeless beauty of the Women’s Palace in Edo to bloody battles fought outside its walls, The Last Concubine is an epic evocation of a country in revolution, and of a young woman’s quest to find out who she really is.

Japan in the mid 1800's was still very much a feudal society, still functioning in the ways of the emperor and the shogun, that is until the country was split into north and south factions and fought a very bloody civil war. Where the Western world was hurtling headlong into the Industrial age, Japan was a land of ancient rituals.

Sachi is a young girl who is plucked from a rural village and sent to be a maid in the shogun's palace in Edo (which we now know of as Tokyo). It is a very disciplined life in the women's court. There are 3000 women, and only one man, so it is therefore quite an honour if you catch the attention of the young shogun as Sachi does. It is also a life with very strict rules about behaviour, lots of warrior training, and lavish clothes and beauty regimes. Once a young girl entered the life of the court, it was highly likely that they would not be able to leave the environs of the castle, and certainly if they are not chosen to be the shogun's concubine they will have nothing to do with men from that point on.

As war comes to Edo, Sachi is chosen to be a decoy to try and protect the life of the Imperial princess, and so begins the great adventure which takes her back to the village she grew up in where she finds out more about who her real parents were. Along the way she is assisted by a trio of warriors, one of whom, Shinzaemon, makes her heart beats faster even though she knows that it against the strict rules to fraternise with any man, let alone one who finds himself on the losing side of the conflict that is tearing apart Japan.

Also on her adventures she meets a European man - very strange looking, with no idea of how to treat a proper Japanese lady. The Europeans are looking to expand into Japan and to bring the Industrial age to a country where very little had changed in hundreds of years. They come in their black ships, and bring their strange contraptions (carriages) and there is even talk of their iron monsters (trains)

Lesley Downer has had several non-fiction books published and there is no doubt that she knows her subject. What didn't happen very well is the translation to a fiction story. There were plot elements that were introduced hurriedly towards the end of the book that really seemed quite disconnected from the first half of the book, especially the two mysteries that were uncovered and then needed to be resolved in the second half of the book. Really only one of them was resolved, and whilst in the author's note she explains what the historical context of the second mystery was and how it really is still an unresolved matter, in some ways it seems kind of superfluous to the plot.

By trying to cover the events of not one, but two sets of doomed lovers (both Sachi and Shin and her parents), there were times when the narrative of the relationships lost some of their potency. I did enjoy the build up of the relationship between Sachi and Shin, and the subtlety of their romance reflected the delicacy of the rituals that Sachi was used to participating in, whilst still breaking all the rules. The tragedy that could have befallen Sachi if her love was exposed was always hovering just below the surface and tainted the interactions between the two with beautiful subtlety.

Reading about Sachi's life and the various traditions and disciplines that shaped her life was very interesting so it is a shame that the narrative didn't quite work for me. I will keep an eye out to see if this author writes another novel and would hope to see some growth in her writing style, because the setting that she has chosen to specialise in is fascinating, and not at all over done in historical fiction.

This book was one of the books that I nominated for the I Heard it Through the Grapevine Challenge. I first heard of this book over at Reading the Past and I was interested in reading it as soon as I heard about it precisely because of its unusual setting.

Crossposted at Historical Tapestry.


  1. I think it's fun to find historical settings that aren't done to death even if they're not the best book I've ever read. Like you say here, I like to follow a new author and see how they grow.


  2. It's too bad this one didn't turn out to be as good as it could have been, because the setting really sounds absolutely fascinating!

  3. I've been thinking about reading this book for a while as I love reading books set in Japan but I might try and find some others to focus on I think. Something has always made me steer away from this one for some reason.

  4. I have this in a pile somewhere Marg. I'll let you know what I think after I've read it.

  5. I'm with Nymeth. It sounds like it should have been great. I hate when I have really high expectations....and the book falls short.

  6. It may work for other people, it just wasn't that great for me. It wasn't totally terrible though.

  7. I've heard of the author's non-fiction books, although I haven't actually read any of them yet. That's too bad that her venture into fiction didn't quite work for you. Sounds like it could be a good story in the right hands.

  8. I have just started reading this book and have to say that I'm struggling, even after only 20 pages. You identified the problem well: this is Downer's first foray into fiction after being a non-fiction writer. I'm finding the detail too dense to build up any sense of narrative. I'm reluctant to give up just yet, and may see if I can get a bit further before abandoning it completely, but don't know how successful I will be.