- Book: The Office of Gardens and Ponds
- Location: Honshu, Kyoto
- Author: Didier Decoin
All credit to an author who can spin out an enchanting novel around the husbandry of carps, set in 12th Century Japan! This is a beautifully presented novel (the cover is exquisite) with rather wondrous content.
Amakusa Miyuki has just lost her husband Katsuro in a freak accident in the Kusugawa river, as he was catching and preparing several carp due for transportation from their home village of Shimae to Heian Kyō, the Imperial capital which we know today as Kyoto.
The rituals of tending to the dead are concerning Miyuki when the elders of her impoverished village come to her and ask her to continue the arrangement of taking the superlative carp, fished from the local river, to their final resting and swimming place in the ornamental gardens of the Imperial city. This involves a lengthy journey across a variety of terrains, on foot, with a pair of panniers strapped across her shoulders, containing the fragile carp – abrasions of their scales and ensuing damage to their integral beauty will incur rejection and the journey will have been for nothing.
The vagaries of Miyuki’s journey forms a good part of the novel and finally she arrives in Heian Kyō, her panniers a little lighter due to misadventures along the way. It is an utterly different world to the one she knows, where formality, dress codes, etiquette and precision behaviour are de rigueur. There is something about her – I shall leave this vague – that sees her drawn into a contest, devised by the Emperor Nijō Tennō that shifts the story in an unusual but nevertheless entertaining direction.
Yes, this is a story of hardship and resilience but it is also a lyrical exploration of Japan at a time when unrest and exploitation were rife. It is a beautifully penned and at times quite a sensuous novel that weaves its way across the Japanese landscape and left me feeling richer for having read it. How often can you say that? Thank you too to the translator Euan Cameron for doing a wonderful job. Oh, and that cover!!! Highly recommended!