The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery
(Vintage, Random House, January 2008)
“The Teahouse Fire”, set in Japan, is, for a change, not set in a geisha house in 18th or 19th century, or earlier. At the time of its publication, readers of this well-mined genre would have been over-familiar with the reference framework of authors like Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha – 1999), Sayo Masuda (Autobiography of a Geisha – 2005) and Liza Dalby (The Tale of Murasaki – 2001).
The cover of the book, of a girl in a classical kimono, sets the scene for the milieu of Japan before World War II, “a closed world, an ancient art, a forbidden love”. However, then Avery surprises the reader, since the art in question is not that of the geisha, but the tea ceremony, one of the oldest traditions and art forms of Japan and presented solely by men. In the 12th century Eichū (永忠), a monk, introduced green power tea to Japan and by the 13th century the Samurai were using it as part of their Zen Buddhist rituals. From there it became an expression of culture and status, but since it was solely the domain of males, it was forbidden territory for Aurelia, a child who is orphaned when a fire breaks out in the monastery where her uncle is a priest. She is adopted by a family famous for their tea ceremonies. An Eurasian child, her adopted family thinks her Western features are ugly, and no-one realises that she has French ancestry, and was actually born in New York as a Roman Catholic. She is raised as a servant and for her not only the tea ceremony, but Japanese society, are inaccessible.
The forbidden love referred to on the cover are not only her love for Japan and its culture, but for her adopted family and their eldest daughter, Yukako, with whom she falls in love. Yukako is also caught in a situation from which there is no escape: – she is in love with a wealthy young man, a student of her father, who abuses her and then marries someone else. Entangled in emotions that she cannot control and desperate for meaning in her existence, Yukako commits the unpardonable crime of studying and learning the tea ceremony in secret, and then teaching it, for profit no less, to another girl, a geisha. Bashing at the pre-War Japan equivalent of the glass ceiling she takes her temerity to its furthest extent and founds a school where she teaches girls and boys the tea ceremony. Instead of marrying the next Tea Master, she becomes it.
Yukako suffers the wrath of her family, society, her clients, members of the royal entourage and the emperor himself, and in turn she takes her takes here frustrations and depression out on Aurelia, who is driven to breaking point by the time the war reaches them. However, she does learn the secrets of the tea ceremony from Yukako.
The flowing tale reads well, though Avery does become a bit didactic in her use and explanations of Japanese terms like tatami, kimono and obi. She uses Aurelia’s problems with Japanese to introduce concepts to the reader and explain the differences in nuance between expressions. While at times a bit forced, these instances confirm Aurelia’s status of outsider to the reader, in terms of language as well as Westernised appearance: “…poking a spot on the undifferentiated rectangle of her [Aurelia’s] torso, ‘It’s like your shape is fat.’” (p.119).
The tension in the novel is maintained to about three quarters through, after which the reader is tempted to skip to the end to read the conclusion. The milling about with Aurelia’s unhappiness and frustrations perhaps take too long. There is a sub-plot about the humiliation of Aurelia’s birth mother by the nuns of her church in New York, the priest that abused her, and her subsequent hatred of the church, but this is not thoroughly developed and distracts from the main narrative.
The most important fire that burns in this novel is the lesbian affair between Aurelia and another maid, Inko, that they can only pursue openly when in America. The depiction of neither relationship, with Yukato or Inko, struck me as being particularly moving. (If you want to read about beautifully depicted and emotive lesbian relationships, set in ancient Japan, I recommend Liza Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki, 2000.) Unfortunately, since none of the themes in the book – lesbianism, female liberation, religious intolerance, or bigotry – are fully exploited and carried through in the character development and plot, the novel, while entertaining as a Historical Romance, is ultimately forgettable and will probably not become an important addition to the Geisha Genre. The most interesting facet of the novel is the depiction of the tea ceremony and all its convolutions and conventions.
The Teahouse Fire has won awards for Ellis Avery, not for the afore-mentioned genres, but for lesbian literature; the Lesbian Debut Fiction prize at the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Barbara Gittings Literature Award for best gay or lesbian novel in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards.
Ellis Avery is Assistant Professor and teaches fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts Creative Writing Program. She is the author of two novels and a memoir. Her first novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006), set in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan, has been translated into five languages. Her second novel, The Last Nude, inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, came out in January, 2012 from Riverhead Books. Avery is also the author of The Smoke Week (Gival 2003), an award-winning 9/11 memoir. She received a BA from Bryn Mawr College and an M.F.A. from Goddard College.