Kozaishō, the narrator for Lazar’s well-researched epic, is an uncommon heroine who has little freedom and few choices but whose powerlessness increases her resolve. Born the fifth daughter to rural peasants, she is just a child when her impoverished father trades her away for more land. Even then, she knows her responsibility to honor her family. The novel’s strongest attribute is its adherence to period values; it immerses readers in a foreign culture in which respect, dignity, and obedience are paramount. These aren’t always easy concepts for Western readers to grasp, but as Kozaishō pointedly states, “Submission is not surrender.”
Although she is quite young for a good part of the book, this is definitely an adult story, one with intensely rendered scenes of elegance and cruelty. It also defies expectations in another way. Kozaishō’s early rivalry with an older girl looks to move into Memoirs of a Geisha territory, but this doesn’t last very long. Tashiko becomes her best friend and more as they train as dancers at a remote shōen (estate) and later become Women-for-Play – prostitutes – under a brutal mistress’s supervision.
With her debut novel, Lazar creates a striking portrait of an unfamiliar time, and of a valiant woman determined to avenge a terrible wrong and overcome the odds stacked against her.
The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai was published by Headline in January at £7.99 (pb, 560pp, cover at right). The hardcover is also available (£16.99, cover at top left). American readers can preorder it via the US distributor, Trafalgar Square, who will make it available this June in hardcover ($24.95, heavily discounted at Amazon). I bought a copy at Waterstones in London just before the Historical Novel Society conference last October. This review appears in the Feb 2013 issue of the Historical Novels Review.