WRITERS of historical fiction agonize over the extent to which the past should seem foreign. Details of period dress and habits can lend a novel authenticity or gum up its works with esoterica. Moment by moment and page by page, the writer must decide how familiar her characters ought to be and how strange, how much to tell the reader and how much to leave to the imagination.
In her debut novel, "The Teahouse Fire," Ellis Avery meets these challenges with masterful grace. She has done copious research into Japanese history from the 1860s to the 1890s, and she has a thorough understanding of the forms and spirit of chado, the Japanese "way of tea." The story she weaves is so vivid and engrossing that one can forget that historical fiction poses tricky writerly challenges.
Avery's narrator is Aurelia Corneille, who, as an older woman, recounts her experiences as a 9-year-old American orphan arriving in Miyako (as Kyoto was known to Westerners). Aurelia comes to serve her Jesuit uncle, who sanctimoniously plans to "minister to a lost flock. To convert the heathen." Soon after their arrival, Uncle Charles' petty self-regard gives way to actual villainy -- perhaps the only questionable plot point in this well-crafted novel, as his pomposity seems reason enough for his niece to dislike him -- and Aurelia improvises a prayer at a Shinto shrine that results in his house catching fire, trapping him inside while she escapes.
After running dazed through the streets, she stumbles into Baishian, a small teahouse in the family compound belonging to the Shins, who have taught chado to Japan's rulers for centuries. Yukako, the daughter and heir of the house, finds Aurelia and takes her in as a servant and surrogate younger sister, dubbing her Urako, as "Aurelia" is difficult for a Japanese speaker to pronounce.
In the rituals of the Shin household, the newly renamed Urako finds, for the first time, a place in the world, despite the instability of her relationship with the family and her obvious differences from everyone around her. (Never having seen a white person, Yukako guesses, "Maybe when she was pregnant with you, your mother tried to let you go, but she had you anyway, and that's why your face turned out like that.") Tea is a rigorous discipline, its every gesture requiring years of practice to attain the illusion of effortlessness. Its beauty speaks to Urako, who learned the value of work and the appreciation of beautiful things from her mother before she died. Participating as a guest in her first tea ceremony, Urako says: "Suspended in the Mountain's [the tea master's] slow gestures, the gathered concentration pouring from the women flanking me, I felt like a tiny fleck of light on the skin of an orange, this earth. The little house, so lovely empty, was a stage, I understood, for this quiet dance."
Avery depicts Urako's adoptive culture with an irreverent sense of humor that perfectly captures the pitch of a bright, restless child's observations. Of music Urako says, "I had grown up on Latin hymns and New York street music -- the accordion, the fife and drum, the Irish fiddle -- and my mother's craggy French alto, her love songs and lullabies. These had not prepared me for the meowl, the twang, the start-and-stop of Japanese music"; about Japanese horseshoes, she remarks, "I missed what the man with the lamp was saying as the animal moved from hoof to hoof, transfixed as I was by what those hooves were wearing: straw baskets.... Why would you do that? I could understand eating seaweed and taking off my shoes in the house, but why would you tie baskets to a horse's feet?" At the same time, as Urako becomes more at home in her new world, she uses its vocabulary more freely, and the reader comes to experience such events as temae (the tea-making procedure) with minimal authorial prompting.
In parallel to her growing love of temae, Urako's relationship with Yukako burgeons over time; its complexities are among "The Teahouse Fire's" true pleasures. Like many a young girl, Urako adores the graceful figure of her "older sister" and her scent, "sweet and sharp, like fresh earth"; yet the object of her affection is imperfect -- at times, she is a submissive daughter; at others, she is more willing to set her kimono on fire than to mend it herself. When her son eventually takes over as the teahouse's master teacher, Yukako becomes its shrewd and innovative business manager. She is not altogether likable, and this renders Urako's love for her all the more convincing. Avery's deft handling of Yukako's and Urako's complex sexuality is also a real achievement. Urako's attachment to Yukako and her relationship with Miss Inko, another servant, develop with great tenderness and in a manner wholly consistent with the novel's world.
As surely as "The Teahouse Fire" notes its protagonist's changes as she ages, it also documents a once-insular culture as it moves toward Westernization: This is the period in which the jinrikisha (rickshaw), the Gibson Girl hairstyle and the westernizing Meiji emperor's program of bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) came to Japan. Urako does not judge these innovations but remains alert to their ebb and flow. Such details ground the novel in its historical moment, and they allow Urako's story to unfold against a backdrop that mirrors her own constant questioning of what it means to be Japanese, what it means to be foreign. Urako's life is tinged with the hardship of never quite belonging; the parallel of, for example, Urako and Yukako struggling to present tea to Westerners at an expo resonates deeply. Although this is a historical novel as well as a coming-of-age book, the depth of Avery's exploration of her period and her characters lets her soar above the limitations of both genres. She portrays Urako's liminality convincingly and movingly, which lends her subject great richness and weight.
When an imperial figure is to visit the Shin household soon after Urako's arrival, the gardener cuts down all the iris blossoms, because "the Mountain planned to exchange the scroll in the Baishian alcove for a vase holding one perfect blue flower." When the visitor comes, "he'll see leaves, leaves, leaves, but no flowers. But then at last, inside Baishian: the flower." The visual simplicity, the near austerity of this gesture, exemplifies the aesthetic of chado, an aesthetic Avery employs in her own supple prose. Urako's goodness and her precise and lyrical descriptions lend as much dignity to the many hardships she witnesses and suffers as to the ending that emerges unexpectedly from them. When she remarks, "How beautiful, to see something done simply and well," she could easily be speaking about "The Teahouse Fire," a novel that, like the tea ceremony itself, provides true pleasure to the intellect and all the senses.