Japan, as I discussed in my recent Historical Musings post, is a country whose history I know very little about. Lesley Downer has written several books about Japan, including a quartet of novels set in the 19th century; I remember reading about one of the others on The Idle Woman’s blog a few months ago, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Downer’s latest book, The Shogun’s Queen. This is the final book in the quartet to be published, but it’s the first chronologically so even though I haven’t read the other three I didn’t expect to be at any disadvantage.
After a brief prologue, the novel opens in 1853 with Japan on the cusp of change. Until now, the country has been largely insulated from the outside world and apart from some limited contact with Dutch traders, Japanese ports have been closed to the west. The sight of barbarian ships approaching, then, causes panic, fear and confusion. What do the barbarians (westerners) want and what will they do if Japan refuses to agree to their demands?
It’s during this turbulent period that our heroine, Okatsu, is adopted by the ambitious Lord Nariakira of Satsuma and taken into his household, where she is renamed Atsu. Adoption, in Japan at this time, is a way of raising a woman’s rank and improving her marriage prospects, so a few years later Nariakira arranges for Atsu to be adopted again, this time by his brother-in-law Prince Konoe. His ultimate aim is to marry Atsu to Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun, and in 1856 this aim is achieved. Nariakira hopes Atsu can use her position as Iesada’s wife to influence the Shogun’s choice of a successor – but as Atsu gets to know her new husband she discovers how difficult that task will be.
The approach of western ships means Japan is facing a new set of threats, dangers and opportunities, so strong leadership is desperately needed. I’m not going to say too much about the character of Iesada, but as soon as he appears on the page it is obvious that he can’t possibly be that strong leader. Poor Atsu; although she does begin to feel affection and even love, of a sort, for the Shogun, it is not a normal or happy marriage and it would be difficult not to have sympathy for her. Iesada’s mother is a cruel, manipulative woman who resents having to relinquish any of her control over her son, and this makes it almost impossible for Atsu to carry out the instructions she has been given by Nariakira.
As if Atsu’s situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been forced to separate from the man she truly loves, Kaneshige, and doesn’t expect to see him again, knowing that once she enters Edo Castle as the Shogun’s wife she will never be allowed to leave. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about this period of Japanese history before I started reading, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of Atsu’s life, both before her marriage, when she lived in the Satsuma domain, and later, in the confines of the Women’s Palace in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). It was also fascinating to read about the ‘barbarians’ – Americans and Europeans – and how they and their culture appeared when seen through Japanese eyes.
I would have no hesitation in recommending The Shogun’s Queen to readers who, like myself, are looking for an accessible introduction to the history of 19th century Japan. A lack of familiarity with the period is not a problem as Lesley Downer makes everything easy to follow and understand; the book also includes a map, a list of characters and a detailed afterword in which the author provides more information on the historical background and gives us an idea of which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are largely fictional (such as the relationship between Atsu and Kaneshige). First and foremost, though, this is a gripping and entertaining story with characters to love and characters to hate. I enjoyed it and will be exploring Lesley Downer’s other books, as well as continuing to look out for more novels set in Japan.
I received a copy of The Shogun’s Queen from the publisher for review.