The Teahouse Fire
by Ellis Avery
Published by Riverhead Books
391 pages, 2007
Standing on Ceremony
Reviewed by Karen Schechner
One of the most baffling things about The Tea House Fire is why it hasn't gotten more press. This artful debut novel from Ellis Avery, a Columbia University creative writing teacher who studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years, tells the epic story of a 19th-century Japan in flux, just as it's opening to the West. It's an intricately imagined world of shifting politics and power, changing class and gender roles, with a lush backdrop of shoji-screened tea houses, geishas draped in 12-layered kimonos, and lacquered palanquins bearing members of the emperor's family.
Avery was inspired to write the novel after researching the true story of a woman named Sen Yukako. Yukako changed the fate of the tea ceremony in the late 1800s by bringing it into the curriculum of the newly established girls' school. Prior to Sen's involvement, women had rarely been part of the service, or were outright forbidden to participate.
Although The Tea House Fire was very loosely based on Sen, it is a bildungsroman told from the perspective of the fictional character Aurelia Bernard. At nine, Aurelia leaves her dying mother in New York City and travels to Japan with her pedophilic uncle, a missionary on assignment to Christianize Japan. She escapes in one of the fires that bookends the story, and slips into a tea house that belongs to the Shins, at family of master teachers of chado, or The Way of Tea. She is discovered by the young daughter of the family, Shin Yukako, who takes in this "little cat," dubs her Urako, and facilitates her adoption into the family as her little sister/servant.
Urako spends years of her life attending to, and then falling in love with the shrewd and elegant Yukako. Hers is a life full of longing. She sleeps holding Yukako on their neighboring futons and wooden pillows (even after Yukako marries). She devotes the same sort of attention required by chado to her description of Yukako and their life in Kyoto -- its tatami-floored teahouses and the tea implements, including the several hundred-years-old bowl that is broken and soldered with gold; the flavor of citron syrup poured over shaved ice; the "meowl, the twang, the start-and-stop of Japanese music"; and, perhaps, most important to Urako's empowerment, the sounds and multiple meanings of Japanese words. For example, in puzzling out the Japanese word jinrikisha (the origin of rickshaw), she parses it into its individual characters: the two-stroke jin that signifies person, riki, which essentially means strong, and sha, a box cut into quarters, that represents a carriage.
Their lives, along with chado, become inextricably linked throughout the seismic changes both within Japan and the Shin family, including the transfer of power to the emperor from the shogunate, which ultimately causes the family's reversal of fortune; and the arrival of Westerners, aka "butter-smelly barbarians." The upheaval leads Yukako to take the practice of her family's temae, or ritualized meal and tea service, historically reserved for men of the upper castes, and teach it to whoever is willing to pay.
Part of the enjoyment of Avery's expansive novel is that as Urako finds her place in Japan, and in The Way of Tea, she sweeps the reader along with her in almost visceral experience of late-1800s Kyoto. So much so, that when a loutish visitor participating in a ceremony uses the 200-year-old tea implement "One Meeting" (tea tools are named) to spear a sweet, the reader knows more than enough to cringe. | May 2007
Karen Schechner is the staff editor of Bookselling This Week and the senior editor of Lambda Book Report.