Book review: The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai by Barbara Lazar

The dazzling but brutal world of 12th century Japan springs into glorious life through the bizarre destiny of one young peasant girl in Barbara Lazar’s sumptuous new novel.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 16th January 2013, 9:00 am

Kozaishō is Fifth Daughter of a large family, sold by her father to a cruel master in exchange for a plot of land and exiled to the dark and shadowy Village of Outcasts where she will become a Woman-For-Play.

In a story told through Kozaishō’s diary, or pillow book, we journey with her through thrilling twists of fate and fortune which will see her as a woman of the night, a wife, a lover, a teller of fantastical stories, a wise woman and a female samurai warrior.

Kozaishō’s brothers and sisters laughed when she told them she had dreamt that she ate from lacquered bowls and wore glittering kimonos. She’s Fifth Daughter, the youngest child of the family and is destined to always live off the land.

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But Kozaishō possesses a special gift – her beauty – and it is one that gets her noticed by Proprietor Chiba, the ‘Above-the Clouds’ person who owns the fields where her father works.

Sold to Proprietor Chiba for extra land which her family has long coveted, little Kozaishō asks her father how many days she will be away. ‘A lifetime,’ he replies.

With her father’s last words ringing in her ears, ‘Keep our honour. Do your duty,’ the child is whisked away to Lesser House where she learns about the trappings of wealth, how to dance and the meaning of loneliness.

Marked out by two auspicious omens, she is also allowed to train in the ancient arts of the samurai and befriends the warrior Akio who teachers her to be the Pink Flower samurai, to wield a bow and arrow, to fight with a sword, to use the energy of anger for her weapons, and to cry at beauty but not at pain.

But she also make a powerful enemy in the ruthless priest Goro and when she crosses him, she is banished to the notorious Village of Outcasts, a small, stinking town of prostitutes, tanneries and ‘unclean activities.’

But through the power of storytelling, she learns to fight her fate, twisting her life onto a path that even she could not have imagined...

Lazar’s painstaking research and self-proclaimed obsession with Japanese culture ensures that Kozaishō’s epic story is played out with plenty of historical authenticity, accuracy, atmosphere and an abundance of helpful notes.

But it is also a gripping, cleverly conceived and heart-wrenching love story threaded through with the art, culture and storytelling traditions of Japan. At its heart is one woman’s determination to forge her own destiny, to guard the honour of her family and to stay true to herself.

The beauty of Kozaishō’s imaginative storytelling and poetry, which forms the kernel of her own life story, creates a magical, vivid and fable-like quality to the action and the narrative.

The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai is a formidable Far Eastern feast served up in the best traditions of Japanese storytelling... full of rich, exciting flavours, gritty realities, saucy side dishes and unexpected surprises to tickle the taste buds.

Truly a story to savour...

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)