The Teahouse Fire
by Ellis Avery
When Uncle Charles decides to commence missionary work in Japan, his niece Aurelia is taken along, leaving her dying mother back home in New York City. Aurelia soon runs away, even though she is unable to speak Japanese and knows little of the culture, and soon joins the household of a tea ceremony master as a servant. The master’s daughter Yukako takes Aurelia under her wing, and as Aurelia’s puppy-like adoration grows with time into a deep love – nearing obsession – for her mistress. As Japan modernizes, the tea house faces extinction unless it can convince the rapidly Westernizing society that the ancient traditions of tea ceremony hold a place in the heart of Japan.
I went back and forth about how I feel about this book. It had a great plot idea. Using the eyes of an American girl makes it easier for the reader to enter in the world of the Japanese, and it’s a bit of a cheat for the author, too – any tendencies toward exoticism in Avery’s depiction of the Japanese can be “hidden” behind Aurelia’s 19th-century thoughts. The clash of cultures, both on the personal level, like Aurelia and her new Japanese surroundings, and on the world stage with the conflicts brought about by Westernization gave the author a lot of interesting ideas and attitudes to with which to weave a great story.
Avery’s decision to mix Japanese into the narrative wasn’t very successful. If one knows little or no Japanese, it can be confusing, and I think it didn’t aid the process of drawing me into the world of the book because I would have to interrupt the narrative to think “Wait. What does that mean?” It was interesting to see how Aurelia processed the foreign tongue, and slowly made it her own.
The biggest problem in the novel, by far, was Aurelia’s relationship with Yukako. Aurelia’s constant, obsessive love and attention to her mistress was disturbing, to be honest. You know some guys just don’t feel comfortable around gay guys because they’re convinced the moment they let their guard down, the gay guy is going to try to jump their bones? It’s an irrational, silly fear – obviously just because someone is gay does not mean they’ll be attracted to *every* member of the same sex – but let’s face it: it’s out there and many people have it. This book does not help that misconception at all. Aurelia nurses a crush on Yukako for years, and the moment Yukako does ‘relax’ around her, Aurelia does try to kiss her and pull her mistress into her arms, even though it’s clear Yukako is not interested.
Also, the epilogue was contrived and stupid. It tied things together too neatly in order to create an unbelievable happy ending. Homosexual relationships may have been more acceptable in the 1920s, but I'm pretty sure that interracial relationships were not, given the anti-immigration laws passed during that decade.
The language and imagery of the book was beautiful. I loved Avery's descriptions of silk kimonos and the minutae of the tea ceremony. I could taste the grassy matcha, feel the smooth surface of the lacquered boxes, and imagine the delicacy of the flowers used in the tea room. If the book had just had these lovely images, and had left the disturbing, obsessive one-sided relationship of Aurelia/Yukako out, I'd have been so much happier with the novel.
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