The Peony Lantern written by Frances Watts (Harper Collins) PBK RRP $16.99 ISBN 9780733332920
Reviewed by Sharon McGuinness
It is 1857 Japan and European ships have arrived just four years earlier – a time of change – not just for the strict norms of Japanese society but also for Kasumi, a fifteen year old girl intent on becoming her own person.
Kasumi has keen powers of observation which, in her small village and family are an advantage – something which may have previously earned rebuke from her father, but has been noticed by the visiting samurai, Lord Shimizu. Realising the benefits Kasumi may bring to his household, in addition as a companion for his new, young wife, Lord Shimizu offers her a position.
Shimizu takes her on the journey back to Edo (Tokyo); they are accompanied by his adopted son, nephew Isamu. On leaving her village Tsumago, Kasumi wonders to herself ‘perhaps in Edo I would find a life that suited me’.
Kasumi becomes part of the household and enjoys the friendship offered by Shimizu’s wife Misaki. She begins to feel that all is not what it seems and that Misaki is hiding something about her background. Instantly attracted to Shimizu’s nephew Isamu, Kasumi’s insecurity leads her to believe that he is in fact in love with Misaki, fuelled when she overhears Misaki and Isamu talking.
Mystery and intrigue surround several of the characters and set against a backdrop of the tension between the ruling Shogun and the Europeans as they vie for power, the intrigue is heightened when Kasumi’s futon is slashed. Who would want to hurt her?
Through Misaki, Kasumi is given opportunities usually only reserved for the privileged. Trips to the theatre and weekly lessons in ikebana and painting prove to her that she will not be content with an ordinary life.
Her keen observation and intellect enable her to uncover the mystery behind Misaki’s background and the truth behind Isamu’s secrecy. When Taro, Shimizu’s closest friend is killed, Kasumi solves the intertwined puzzles of the political threats and the secrets of the household.
We are left at the end of the story feeling that Kasumi will not let her lowly class prohibit her from not only being with the man she loves, but that she will follow her own aspirations to live a life of her own choosing.
Watts plunges her readers into her historical narrative about a society which is a polar opposite to 2015 Australia. Is it really, though? Political intrigue, family secrets and a desire to push the boundaries of both class and societal norms are themes which are timeless.
The beauty of Watts’ writing leads us through an exciting narrative, the mystery’s solution only revealed at the end. The reader revels in themes of identity, the position of women, honour in Japanese samurai culture and Japanese history while noting the symbolism of the natural world versus the controlled. It is a novel full of references to Japanese literature, art and theatre which readers will willingly absorb in their quest to solve the mysteries within.
Destined to be enjoyed by anyone over the age of 12 and bound to be a favourite to be shared within a class, an added advantage is its ‘usefulness’ as a text aptly aligned to the new English curriculum.