Book Review: The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay

Having recently read The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay (click here for my review) I couldn’t wait to read the prequel, The Scarlet Kimono. Although I probably should have read them in order, it actually didn’t matter at all to read them this way round, and in fact I found myself smiling when I realised something was happening in the story which I would lead to something in the next book.

The Scarlet Kimono is a delightful historical romance, which begins in Japan in 1611. Courtenay admits in the author’s note at the beginning of the book that she has taken a couple of liberties with certain historical facts and dates, but the basic framework of the time period is accurate. This is a work of fiction, though, and as far as the author knows nothing like this story ever actually happened. Courtenay was inspired by the adventures of William Adams (known as Anjin) – the first Englishman to go to Japan. Adams became key advisor to the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and stayed in Japan even after being given the chance to return to his home country, abandoning his wife and child back in England in favour of his new life in Japan.

The Gilded Fan was the story of Midori Kumashiro, daughter of a British woman called Hannah who ran away to Japan. The Scarlet Kimono tells Hannah’s story, and what a story it is! Hannah Marston is an awkward red-headed seventeen year old girl with no confidence in herself but a rebellious spirit. She dreams of exploration rather than settling down into an arranged marriage with the widowed father of five, Ezekiel Hesketh, as her parents have planned.

Hannah decides to run away from her unhappy life, and is willing to go to the ends of the earth to find something better. Sneaking away in the dead of the night and disguising herself as a boy, she stows away aboard the ship she believes to be her brother Jacob’s merchant ship, bound for Japan.

But there are two ships bound for Japan, the other captained by the attractive but arrogant Raphael Rydon.

On the other side of the world, Taro Kumashiro, a daimyo, has received a warning from his Yoda-like retainer and seer, Yanagihara. A foreign woman with flaming red hair and eyes like pale sapphires is coming, and she may pose a threat.

Out of curiosity rather than fear, Kumashiro seeks out this gaijin (foreigner), and gets more than he bargained for when he finds himself captivated by her unusual beauty. Although Hannah fights the attraction at first, having never had a good experience with a man, Kumashiro soon finds a unique way of gaining her undivided attention and affection.

But Hannah is torn between her first love and the feeling that she ought to return to England with her brother, and Kumashiro finds himself having to choose between love and honour.

The main story of  The Scarlet Kimono is of course the romance, but there is also a story of an unusual friendship formed aboard a ship. During Hannah’s journey to Japan, she forms a close bond with the ‘Chinaman’ Hoji, who is of course actually Japanese. Hannah is immediately willing to try his food, learn about his customs, and study his language, which stands her in good stead when she actually arrives in Japan, even though the others around her think she’s strange for accepting his ways and adapting to them.

As a foreign woman who has lived in Japan, and loves Japanese culture, I found myself relating to certain things in this book. Although this is a historical story, certain aspects of life in Japan don’t seem to have changed at all. When Hannah arrives in Japan, for example, we are told “Japan was like nothing Hannah had ever seen before and she couldn’t have imagined it if she tried.” And as she lives there she seems to delight in learning about Japanese culture in much the same way as I did when I moved to Japan. I particularly smiled at how Hannah grew to love Japanese baths, after learning the correct way to bathe.

The ladies helped Hannah out of her clothes. Then they washed her from head to toe with water from a bucket before allowing her near the pool of water.

‘Why can’t I wash in the bath?’ Hannah had asked the first time she’d done this in Hirado, but Sakura had giggled and shaken her head as if it was a very silly question.

‘No, no, you’ll make the water dirty,’ she had replied. ‘Everyone has to share.’

‘Surely that’s the point? To make me clean and the water dirty?’ Sakura had giggled again and told her the bath was only for relaxing in, not for cleaning.

The way the story looks at a relationship between a Japanese man and Western woman is also interesting. Although relationships between Western men and Japanese women are quite common, it’s not so usual the other way around. But Hannah realises that, while she certainly doesn’t find all Japanese men attractive (“She had never given a thought to Hoji’s looks one way or another, because she thought of him only as a benign older uncle.“), one in particular really does seem to get her hot under the collar. Taro, too, seems fascinated by Hannah’s ‘otherness’, in particular her red hair which curls slightly, even though he’s sure “his fellow countrymen would think him mad” for finding Hannah attractive.

I would be very interested to know how a Japanese person would feel about this story, and whether anything in it would seem strange to them. Although Christina Courteney has spent considerable time in Japan, and has clearly researched a lot, I just wonder if such a story would seem odd from a Japanese perspective.

As well as the page-turning romance and brilliant characters, there is also a little something extra in this book for anyone who knows a little Japanese. Although most Japanese references are explained, such as Taro’s nickname for Hannah – Akai Hana, meaning red flower – others are not explained. There are little treasures to be found in the book, things which may go right over someone’s head if they don’t know a word of Japanese, such as the constant use of the word ‘chikusho’ (meaning ‘damn it’) and various other words and phrases which are thrown in without translation. This could put some readers off, but I suspect the majority of people who read this book will be somewhat familiar with Japanese language and culture anyway.

So, if you like historical romances, and love Japan, this is the book for you! I highly recommend reading both The Scarlet Kimono and The Gilded Fan – they’re the perfect escape into another world.

For more information about Christina Courtenay please visit christinacourtenay.com or choc-lit.co.uk.

The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay

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