Review of THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS by GAIL TSUKIYAMA
With this novel, Tsukiyama spins a tale of two brothers. Orphaned at a young age, Hiroshi and Kenji go to live with their grandparents. Strong Hiroshi and timid Kenji both discover their passions very early on in life: Hiroshi wants to be a sumotori and Kenji a mask maker. Hiroshi’s dream almost seems possible, while Kenji’s feels too far out of reach. Then both ambitions fade into the background as World War II devastates Japan.
These brothers’ lives are interwoven with that of two sisters, daughters to a famous sumo trainer. Like Hiroshi and Kenji, one has a stronger and another a weaker presence. After their mother’s violent death during the war, the elder sister Haru takes charge, helping her household as well as her father’s sumo pupils. Then she moves on to university where she grows into a strong-willed, smart, modern young woman who pushes against Japan’s traditions. Meanwhile, Aki wilts after their mother’s death, never recovering from the trauma. She’s quiet and withdrawn, unsure of herself and less capable of all chores Haru leaves behind when she goes to university.
These four characters form the heart of a story that spans most of their lifetimes. I am a very character-centric reader and am happy to report that everyone here feels like a real person, and the intricacies of their relationships when they interact is what held my attention.
My only criticism, and if I recall this is true of the other book I read by this author, is that the storyline feels a little too tragic for my taste. There tends to be a theme in Tsukiyama’s writing of people making the wrong choices. As the reader, these mistakes seem so obvious and you can almost imagine an alternate happily ever after for the characters if they did even one thing differently. But they don’t. The characters can’t see what seems to the reader, or at least me, like the smart choice, and they pay the price for that emotional blindness. My favorite stories usually feature active characters who take control of their lives. Tsukiyama’s characters feel more like they’re surrendering to life, fixated on a certain path to the point that they don’t notice they have other options. However, she does portray a very realistic phenomenon and the character decisions, if sometimes frustrating, are always believable.
THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS is about four specific children surviving a changing Japan, but it’s also a beautiful tale about family, emotional bonds, and pursuing our passions.