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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book of the Week: "The Tea House Fire"

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

Avery, a longtime student of the Japanese tea ceremony, has set her first novel in late-nineteenth-century Japan, when that tradition-steeped nation gradually exposed itself to the modern West.

She weaves a memorable saga of two women: Yukako, the daughter of a respected "tea advisor" to feudal lords, and Aurelia, a French orphan who traveled to Kyoto at age nine with her uncle, and was adopted by the tea master's family after he died. Avery adroitly conveys the intricacies of the tea ceremony, "the language of diplomacy," and the subtle ways in which it was transformed as Japan moved from a Shogun society to one ruled by the emperor. At the same time, she illuminates other social changes, such as the arrival of the steam engine, women no longer blackening their teeth, and the lifting of the ban on Christianity.

Aurelia remains Yukako's stalwart friend through doomed romances and a disappointing marriage, telling her, when Yukako resumes her father's tea ceremonies after his death, "You took an art that could have died, and you made it live."
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