Princess Harueme has lived her life in the shadow of Japanese emperors. In the winter of her years, though, she needs to leave court and head to a convent, where she already knows she will die. Compelled to fill empty notebooks, Harueme begins telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a cat who has lost her family and her fudoki due to a horrible fire in the middle of her city. As the story progresses, Harueme intertwines the tale of her own life with Kagaya-hime’s, and we slowly learn about these two women and their individual struggles.
I never doubt Ana when she recommends a book and this is one I can specifically trace back to her recommendation. I could not resist the idea of this cat-turned-woman story. Even so, as with so many books, it sat on my wishlist until a friend bought it for me, and then I finally read it – and, of course, I loved it. It immediately drew me in with the tale of a tortoiseshell cat who loses her entire family and just barely survives the fire; it’s sad, but poignantly written, and it felt just pitch-perfect. The book remains just that perfectly and magnificently written.
This story of intertwined women shines so brightly and has so many things to say about life that I’m not even sure I can review it properly. It’s one of those books that illuminates things that I hadn’t necessarily thought about, but in a way that stuck me as perfect.
Perhaps some quotes can illustrate this better than I can:
What man, what lost love or deceased kinsman is worth death? The space in my life that my half-brother once filled is now an aching icy pain, like the hole left after a tooth is pulled, and I am dying in weeks or months – and yet I still fight for life, as every mouse does, until the final beak-blow. The grace in tragedy is not to succumb, but to fight on. (87-88)
It’s such a beautiful book. I loved the format with the story of the two women, I loved Kagaya-hime’s cat-like sensibilities, I loved Harueme’s thoughtful reflections on her life gone by. It’s a book to make me wish I was more articulate so I could explain better just why it appealed to me. I haven’t read The Fox Woman which is Johnson’s first book, but I wish that I had, as I’ve read that the books are connected in small ways. In a way, though, I’m glad, because it’s an excuse to read this book again.
Domei once told me that he missed war.
“How can you?” I asked, shocked.
He was drunk and more candid than usual: he slurred as he spoke. ” I have never had such good friends.”
“You are surrounded by people who love you,” I said, “and no one is dying here.” How could war be better than this? Than me?
“We are all dying,” he said. “We just forget that when nothing is trying to kill us.” (233)
Very highly recommended.