One might think that a book titled The Gardens of Kyoto would be set in Japan, but such is not the case with Kate Walberts hauntingly beautiful debut novel. Along the way, it makes stops to reveal hidden characters to the reader, fascinating people all, but people whose lives, at least in relation to the books narrators, are ephemeral, people whose lives blur through grief or tragedy or fantasy, people who may or may not be real to anyone but our narrator, people who may not be real even to themselves. The Gardens of Kyoto begins with a deceptively simple sentence: I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Seeing it from the air does not count; in the 15th century, they could not conceive of such a thing as seeing from the air.) As Randall, the owner of the book, The Gardens of Kyoto, puts it, the gardens were meant to be viewed from a distance, their fragments in relation. The books narrator, Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, is a middle-aged English teacher when she utters that simple opening line, though we dont learn that fact until near the books end. Ellen, in fact, becomes so taken with Randall that her brief association with her beloved cousin will color every relationship she has throughout the rest of her life. (This is not a spoiler; as mentioned above, its revealed in the first sentence of the book.) In fact, one of the books early set pieces takes place in a diner in which Ellen is waiting with Randall and several other soldiers for a train that will take many of them away from their loved ones forever. After learning of Randalls presumed death on Iwo Jima (his body is never found), his father sends Ellen a package of Randalls treasures that contains his (Randalls) diary as well as his book, The Gardens of Kyoto. It is through Randalls diary and his beloved book about Japans famous gardens that Ellen and the reader are able to piece together the history of Randalls short life, and in so doing, learn about Ellens. We know how much Randall meant to Ellen; weve already come to like him ourselves; and we know he is one of the soldiers who will not return. The emotional devastation of war is a constant theme running through The Gardens of Kyoto, and it affects Randalls father, Sterling, Ellens sister, Rita and her husband, Roger, Ellen, herself, and Lt. Henry Rock, a handsome young man who falls in love with the already attached Daphne, one of Ellens friends, and with whom Ellen, herself falls instantly in love. The Gardens of Kyoto is a rich, full book, with wonderfully developed, imperfect characters and beautifully developed themes. And given the fact that the title of the book is the name of a Japanese rock garden, its a little heavy handed that Henrys surname just happens to be Rock. Eventually, the reader has to question which events in the book really happened and which are only products of Ellens wishful thinking.
The Gardens of Kyoto is an eloquent book and in important ways, a ghost story of those who have touched the lives of those who are left behind. The title alludes to a book, gifted to a young Ellen by her cousin and presumed love interest Randall, who, we quickly learn, was killed in the war. The Gardens of Kyoto is a luminous book, somewhat elusive, enormously powerful, and filled with beauty and truths.
This was a hauntingly beautiful book that dealt with many issues related to war and the devastating effect it had on the life of the main character as well as those within her family circle. Her love for Randell colors everything that Ellen does and how she views the men in her life.
Have I told you?" Ellen, the narrator, opens the book with these words. He and Ellen become teenage soulmates, more than half in love by the time he is shipped off to war. Many years later, when she is in college, Ellen meets another soldier about to go to war, this time to Korea. The novel has two main time periods, the mid-forties and mid-fifties; Ellen keeps going back and forth between them, throwing in little surprises at each turn, often contradicting what she had implied before. The first of the five parts, for example, ends with what appears to be a bombshell, but Ellen will later reveal that she and Randall both knew about this much earlier. Meanwhile, there are a number of quite short chapters that appear to have nothing directly to do with Ellen, Randall, or Henry. But this window is impossible to pry open, the gardens left as much to the imagination as the endings of the Koto-In poems that are left unfinished, the ones interrupted by a sudden change of weather.
This book is exactly like the kinds of stories my mother used to tell me, and only now after her death have I come to learn some of the deep truths behind the stories.
She is the author of A Short History of Women, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2009 and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize; Our Kind, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2004; The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the 2002 Connecticut Book Award in Fiction in 2002; and Where She Went, a collection of linked stories and New York Times notable book.