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The Teahouse Fireby Ellis Avery
Synopses & Reviews
A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women — one American, one Japanese — whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan.
When nine-year-old Aurelia Bernard takes shelter in Kyoto's beautiful and mysterious Baishian teahouse after a fire one night in 1866, she is unaware of the building's purpose. She has just fled the only family she's ever known: after her French immigrant mother died of cholera in New York, her abusive missionary uncle brought her along on his assignment to Christianize Japan. She finds in Baishian a place that will open up entirely new worlds to her — and bring her a new family. It is there that she discovers the woman who will come to define the next several decades of her life, Shin Yukako, daughter of Kyoto's most important tea master and one of the first women to openly practice the sacred ceremony known as the Way of Tea.
For hundreds of years, Japan's warriors and well-off men would gather in tatami-floored structures — teahouses — to participate in an event that was equal parts ritual dance and sacramental meal. Women were rarely welcome, and often expressly forbidden. But in the late nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors to the West for the first time, and the seeds of drastic changes that would shake all of Japanese society, even this most civilized of arts, were planted.
Taking her for the abandoned daughter of a prostitute rather than a foreigner, the Shin family renames Aurelia Urako and adopts her as Yukako's attendant and surrogate younger sister. Yukako provides Aurelia with generosity, wisdom, and protection as she navigates a culture that is not accepting of outsiders. From her privileged position at Yukako's side, Aurelia aids in Yukako's crusade to preserve the tea ceremony as it starts to fall out of favor under pressure of intense Westernization. And Aurelia herself is embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.
An utterly absorbing story told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.
"In 1865, nine-year-old Aurelia Caillard is taken from New York to Japan by her missionary uncle Charles while her ailing mother dies at home. Charles soon vanishes in a fire (not the one of the title), leaving Aurelia orphaned and alone in Kyoto. She is taken in by Yukako, the teenage daughter of the Shin family, master teachers of temae, or tea ceremony. Aurelia, narrating as an elderly woman, tells of living as Yukako's servant and younger sister, and how what begins as grateful puppy love for Yukako matures over years into a deeply painful unrequited obsession. Against a backdrop of a convulsively Westernizing Japan, Avery brings the conflicts of modernization into the teahouse, and into Aurelia and Yukako's beds, where jealousy over lovers threatens to tear them apart. In one memorable instance, Yukako, struggling to bring money in for the family, crosses class lines and gives temae lessons to a geisha in exchange for lessons on the shamisen, a seductive (and potentially profitable) string instrument. Eventually stuck in a painful marriage, Yukako labors to adapt the ancient tea ceremony to the changing needs of the modern world, resulting in a breathtaking confrontation. Avery, making her debut, has crafted a magisterial novel that is equal parts love story, imaginative history and bildungsroman, a story as alluring as it is powerful." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Those who like plot twists will relish the epic cast of characters who help and hinder Aurelia and Yukako as they mature." Library Journal
"Avery adroitly conveys the intricacies of the tea ceremony...and the subtle ways in which it was transformed as Japan moved from a Shogun society to one ruled by the emperor." Booklist
"Reading Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire, for me, is like attending seasons of elegant tea parties — each one resplendent with character and drama. Delicious." Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior
Like attending seasons of elegant tea parties—each one resplendent with character and drama. Delicious.”—Maxine Hong Kingston
The story of two women whose lives intersect in late-nineteenth-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire is also a portrait of one of the most fascinating places and times in all of history—Japan as it opens its doors to the West. It was a period when wearing a different color kimono could make a political statement, when women stopped blackening their teeth to profess an allegiance to Western ideas, and when Japans most mysterious rite—the tea ceremony—became not just a sacramental meal, but a ritual battlefield.
We see it all through the eyes of Aurelia, an American orphan adopted by the Shin family, proprietors of a tea ceremony school, after their daughter, Yukako, finds her hiding on their grounds. Aurelia becomes Yukakos closest companion, and they, the Shin family, and all of Japan face a time of great challenges and uncertainty. Told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.
The story of two women whose lives intersect in late nineteenth century Japan, The Teahouse Fire is also a portrait of one of the most fascinating places and times in all of history-Japan as it opens its doors to the West. Told through the enchanting and unforgettable voice of Aurelia, an American orphan adopted by proprietors of a tea ceremony school, this is "a magisterial novel that is equal parts love story, imaginative history and bildungsroman, a story as alluring as it is powerful" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
About the Author
Ellis Avery studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto, and now teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, Kyoto Journal, LIT, and Pacific Reader, as well as onstage at New York's Expanded Arts Theater.
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