The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier
It’s the nature of the beast—when I request a book from NetGalley, it’s like checking out a book I’ve never heard of from a library I’ve visited in the dark. All I’m hearing about the book in question is what the publisher wants me to hear, and my work at the literary agency is teaching me to speak that language, so I tend to distrust it. (I distinctly remember that the cover copy for Among Others was very unrepresentative of the novel as a whole…) In any case, that’s my way of trying to avoid the fact that I picked it on sheer impulse instead of the usually more interesting stories of how other books have come to me.
The Printmaker’s Daughter is the story of Oei, the daughter of Hokusai, the famous printmaker. (You probably know him from the near-ubiquitous The Great Wave.) The homely and awkward daughter of his second wife, Oei learns the art of painting from her father, becoming his helper and protege and rejecting traditional roles for women. But even as she bucks norms, Oei remains dutifully bound to her father and the tense relationship that happens when the student begins to surpass the master. And against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Edo Japan, the isolated country can no longer keep the rest of the world out.
As I began to read The Printmaker’s Daughter, I will admit to a bit of hesitation. Perhaps it’s just because the only other piece of historical fiction set in Japan I’ve read is Memoirs of Geisha, which has its problematic elements, or because we talked about white Canadian women writing about other cultures in my children’s and young adult literature class last semester, but the fact that a white and Western woman had written this made me, whether rightly or wrongly, prepare myself a little for the romanticization of Japan. It never came. Govier, for whom this is her tenth novel, renders Edo Japan with warts and all—or should I say prostitutes and all? Early in the novel, Oei and Hokusai befriend Shino, a noblewoman sold into a brothel as punishment for defying her husband. But it’s not just that. Oei and Hokusai are poor and working class artisans in a society that habitually bans certain art forms as decadent; they’re forever dodging debts, the law, and changing their names. And we get to see how this society interacts with the scant pieces of the West that come—specifically, the Dutch, as they alternately reject and embrace them.
Oei herself is not a sentimental woman by any means, which adds to the warts and all feel of the setting. (I was weirdly delighted by the fact that Oei is unattractive. As an adult, she never bemoans it, even as she recognizes the fact, and instead takes pride in her work and the utility of her body.) Ultimately, she’s just like her father—earthy, artistic, and proud—even as she bemoans his eccentricities. Obviously, the father-daughter relationship is at the heart of the novel. While it spans Oei’s entire life from her own clear-eyed perspective (except for a bizarre and needless dip into the mind of a Dutch doctor she befriends briefly), Hokusai lived to a ridiculously old age. After he dies, it’s a challenge for her to find an identity separate from his, as society now demands, and she never really manages the trick. Hokusai himself is charming, frustrating, and often inscrutable, but the two understand each other. I will say that I was slightly disturbed by the incestuous overtones Govier nods to once or twice—Oei remembers the feeling of her father carrying her as a child as a sexual one and later draws a piece concerning a woman being seduced by father and son. On her website for the book, Govier states that “with a father and daughter there is a sexual pull”. In the novel itself, the two hints are easy enough to gloss over, but I feel obligated to mention it, as I now cannot unsee it.
The pace, writing, and structure are pretty straight-forward and very common in historical fiction, especially historical fiction giving voice to the unsung women of history. (I did enjoy the fact that Oei struggles with being overshadowed by her father in reality; her story isn’t merely untold.) But the aforementioned random dip into the mind of the Dutch doctor is jarring, especially since Oei’s conversations with him include questioning gender roles in Japanese society and therefore pretty important. My notes include eye-rolling, as I immediately assumed they would hook up. (They, mercifully, do not, although Oei pines after him a little. Someday, guys, someday…) There’s also a tendency to introduce things with establishing them. For instance, while talking with the Dutch doctor, Oei asks about Shakespeare’s daughter, having dreamed up a life similar to her own for the woman and wondered about her for some time. Except that that moment is the first moment Oei brings the thought up. It gets worse later, when we’re introduced to Oei’s niece, who befriends her late in life, with a handwave that they’ve just become friends, despite Oei’s tense relationship with the girl’s father. It’s just as jarring as diving into someone’s head in the story of this particular woman’s life.
Bottom line: The Printmaker’s Daughter reasonably good piece of historical fiction about the overshadowed daughter of Hokusai, but the pinch of incest and lack of establishment hurt it. If you’d like.
The Printmaker’s Daughter will be published on November 22nd—tomorrow!
The Printmaker’s Daughter was originally published as The Ghost Brush in Canada last year.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
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