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This article was published 21/5/2010 (2590 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Ghost Brush
By Katherine Govier
HarperCollins, 394 pages, $23
For her eighth novel, Toronto's Katherine Govier has chosen to imagine the life of a historical figure, a woman called Oei, the daughter of one of Japan's best-known 19th-century printmakers, Hokusai. (Google Hokusai and you will find that his most famous prints are The Great Wave and Fuji in Clear Weather.)
Like Mary Anning in Winnipegger Joan Thomas's new novel, Curiosity, Oei is a woman who worked in the shadow of men who took credit for her work.
The premise of Govier's novel is that in his old age (and he lived to 88), Hokusai depended on his daughter to complete his work. She, more than any of his disciples, was his "ghost brush."
From the acknowledgements, it appears that Govier has laboured many years on researching and writing Ghost Brush, a tribute to the feminist impulse to bring Oei to life. The problem is that she emerges as a rather static character, always ruminating over her relationship with her earthy, bullying father. It is Hokusai who comes to life, not Oei.
The novel begins with Oei's birth in 1800. The setting is Edo (Tokyo), the seat of the repressive Tokugawa Shogunate. Foreigners, with the exception of the Dutch, are excluded from Japan. Artists, writers and other disreputables live in the teeming "pleasure quarter" and labour under sporadically enforced censorship.
We view this scene and its many characters through the eyes of the child Oie as she is taken about by her father. Like her father, she is fascinated by the street vendors and the daily parade of courtesans strolling in their fine clothes and elevated clogs.
The place, with its grime and smells and seedy characters, emerges vividly, though the conversations are sometimes unconvincing and even irritating. Would a 19th-century Japanese courtesan really exclaim, "that's like so cool"?
Oei grows up, takes a lover, marries (her 10-year marriage to another artist is summed up in three pages) but the focus of her life remains her father. She works in his studio daily until his death, but he never lets her sign her own paintings.
After her father has a stroke in the 1820s, Oie conceals his disability by shooing visitors away and completing his work herself.
Even more improbable than the successful concealment of his disability are his amazing, sporadic recoveries from it. On occasion his slurred speech and staggering gait disappear and he sets out on long road trips. Within a few years of his first stroke he produces his most famous and successful series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
But the reader is required to stretch her imagination even further when Oie discusses Shakespeare with famous barbarian, Dr. Phillip van Siebold, who visited Edo in 1828 (and was soon expelled from Japan for illegal trading), and later, after her father's death, when she witnesses Commodore Perry's black ships steam into Uraga harbour that fateful night in 1853.
Somehow, Govier's gallant effort to imagine Oei's life often strikes a false note. Just as we are ready to accept the feisty, pipe-smoking, tippling Oei as real, she will make a comment better suited to Gloria Steinem. For example, about courtesans she muses, "What sort of people were we to invent this class of women solely formed to please men?"
One longs for the subtle and convincing portrait of the dutiful butler in Kasuo Ishugiro's Remains of the Day, or for Thomas's Mary Anning.
Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer and biographer.