Looks like my reviews are becoming weekly rather than an every-other-day event. I’ll try to post more often, but you know how it goes.

Today I bring you back, once again, to the Asia of a past era. Specifically, Japan, set in the 1950s and onward to today. The book is The Commoner, by John Burnham Schwartz, and it is a fictional memoir of the empress of Japan, whose roots were little more than middle-class. It chronicles her unlikely marriage to the crown prince, her trials in adjusting to life within the imperial palace, and the struggles of her children as they grow up.

Schwartz writes with great care in this novel, mirroring the distance and coldness of the lifestyle of the imperial family in his writing. I have not read his previous novels, but I found the characters in this one to be quite inaccessible. I thought it was very fitting for many characters, particularly the empress who precedes Haruko, as well as other characters within the court such as the poisonous lady-in-waiting, Oshima. However, for a first-person perspective fictional memoir, I would have expected his main character to be a little more open to the audience and easier to relate to. Initially, I thought she would be, but throughout the book she remained as closed-off as the rest of the cast, which made it difficult to sympathize with her. I would have liked to have seen more openness not only with her, but also perhaps in her relationship with her driver, which spans nearly as many years as her marriage.

I was also struck by the lack of detail of daily life and court operations. Our main character repeatedly says that she has a very busy schedule, planned out to the minute by the court, but there is very little detail of what this actually entails on a day-to-day basis. Did she have no free time at all? What were all of these events? Only a few of them are actually described. I was also struck by the almost overwhelming despair and misery that is the tone of the novel. There is a flutter of excitement towards the beginning when Haruko first meets the crown prince and their interest in one another develops through a series of tennis matches and social events, but even that is downplayed and gives way to gloom. Perhaps it’s my own fault for thinking of Marie Antoinette- both the movie and the many novels and biographies I’ve read about her- while I was reading this book, but I find it difficult to believe that being crown princess and subsequently empress of Japan would be nothing but doom and gloom. I realize that the stifling atmosphere of the palace would make even the strongest people crack a little, and it is no wonder that she suffers a kind of nervous breakdown shortly after her entrance into court life. However, later in the book she looks over old photos of happy times with her husband and children at the beach- yet the audience is given no indication that she ever had any happy times at all after her marriage, despite the fact that she states that she and the crown prince broke old traditions several times for their own comfort. I know first-hand that Japan is a very conservative and restrictive society, and for those in the public eye, particularly constricting. But is there really and truly nothing enjoyable about being empress? Surely as a Japanese national she was somewhat aware of how the royal family lived before her marriage to the crown prince, and if this was the case, why would she agree to marry him knowing the kind of lifestyle she would enter into was so far from what she wanted out of life? Japanese society certainly wouldn’t allow her to be as extravagant as a figure like Marie Antoinette, but I really would like to know if there is nothing at all good about being a woman in the royal family of Japan.

The end of this novel- though I won’t completely spoil it- seems to be both what Haruko has desired for herself from the beginning of her marriage and at the same time completely out of character. She orchestrates a way for her daughter-in-law to escape the court, which is where this story breaks off completely from its factual basis. I can’t decide if this would be a likely course of events for an older empress who has seemingly resigned herself to the ways of the court long ago, but I think that is due to the fact that we are never really let in to Haruko’s heart, mind, or desires. Perhaps this is part of Schwartz’s tactic, in keeping with the “mystery” and closedness (sure it’s a word, I’m a linguist and would I lie? 😉 ) of Japanese society as a whole. I’m curious as to whether this book has been translated into Japanese and if so, what Japanese readers generally think of it.

Bottom line: lyrical, conflicting, and distant, like Japan itself. Worth borrowing from the library or reading in paperback.