Lesley Downer is a British-Chinese historian in love with all things Japanese. She has written many books on the subject but The Last Concubine is her first work of fiction.
Publisher: Corgi (Random House)
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 20th June 2009
The Last Concubine has been on the recommended list of Amazon’s Japanese fiction for some time. If you go in to look at another book of the genre it often pops up. As well as this, Waterstones bookstore has had it as part of its 3 for 2 offer for months.
Sachi is the adopted daughter of country Samurai. When the procession baring the country’s princess stops in her village the Princess whisks her away with her to the palace of the Shogun, the ruler of the land. There she becomes his concubine for the briefest of periods before he dies. Soon after the armies in the south rise up against those who support the new Shogun, wanting to reclaim the land for the emperor. Sachi is forced to flee under the guise of princess but her journey turns out to be far longer than planned as she meets significant people and learns more about her mysterious heritage.
The book is split into parts that are in turn split into chapters before once again being split into parts. Although this can make it confusing it allows the book to be read in bite-sized chunks, which is perfect when you don’t have much time. The locations are breath-taking and so well described that it’s easy to find yourself absorbed in the book from the first couple of pages; a mean feat that most authors don’t manage. It’s obvious that Downer has spent plenty of time researching 1800’s Japan; one of the many pieces of evidence lies in her elaborate paragraphs on kimonos.
On the face of it the storyline, until the end perhaps (which is one of the biggest cop-outs you could come across), is sturdy: a woman trapped by a life of ritual is given a second chance with the valuable insight that comes with having lived to the extremes. The main female characters are strong and likeable. They fight like men and know intricate tricks of the trade. The main male characters are happy enough to leave the spotlight to the women, the English character being particularly welcome as he arrives and shakes up the other’s beliefs on life.
But there are many flaws in this book. Downer’s plot descriptions are poor. The reason is this: she repeats herself. It’s as simple as that, and as it’s so simple one cannot understand why it wasn’t addressed during editing. Practically every time Sachi encounters something that sparks her memory into motion we are given a full run down of everything she remembers. Each time she remembers a particular place we are given the exact same structure of memories and as Sachi does a lot of remembering, far more than your average person, it becomes very wearing. In fact it’s rather surprising that Sachi never has a mental breakdown with all the remembering she does.
This takes us straight to the next big faux pas. The latter part of the book reads like a cheesy romance movie script that no director worth their salt would take on. From being a likeable and strong character Sachi turns into a drama queen, a fragile little darling who believes that the person trying to kill her should do it (the person in question thinks she is someone else and Sachi is happy for them to think that because she thinks she should bare the brunt of it). This is completed by a corny interlude where her friend rushes to take a bullet that was meant for another major character. All of the above happens within four or so continuing pages and if you weren’t already rolling your eyes and wanting to throw the book across the room you will be at this point.
Most of the book, the middle, is given to a journey, while the first part is wholly about the palace and the last about the war and then the war’s aftermath. This means that it has a tendency to drag; aptly like Sachi’s feet after all the walking Downer forces her to do. The beginning may have caught you and coerced you to enter into the palace with it, but the length of the journey will mean you lose your way. There are just far too many times where the characters are walking and looking at mountains. The only thing one learns is that Downer can fit the word “walking” in a paragraph several times over by using a thesaurus.
Downer makes Sachi remember time after time – is this to distract the reader from the fact that she cannot remember herself? Downer keeps reminding us that Sachi knows she can’t do what she wants as she is a woman – and then has Sachi think about the idea that if it weren’t for the war taking her mind away from her personal feelings she might have cherished her meeting with a foreigner so that she could tell her grandchildren about the event. As the late shogun’s concubine, we are told, Sachi must remain celibate for the rest of her life – and Sachi knows that, accepting it as her duty. Why then would she dream of having grandchildren to tell in the first place?
The saving grace of the book as a whole is the romance. The word of choice here is “you” which Sachi’s hero utters twice with no good reason and thus all the good reason in the world. You hope it will soar to dizzy heights but it doesn’t really go anywhere in style which is a shame as it was otherwise well handled.
Downer is a non-fiction author and undoubtedly this means that she spends a lot of time reminding her readers of facts they may have forgotten about in the mists of a book bogged down with dates and names. This has rubbed off on her work of fiction to bad effect. She is quite possibly a brilliant historian but that doesn’t equate to being a good novelist. She must learn how to convert her knowledge into a work of fiction that readers not acquainted with non-fiction will be able to relate to. She must also learn to use the English language correctly and wisely and keep track of her characters.
For a book that held so much promise, The Last Concubine fails in all aspects. As my boyfriend said on witnessing my frustration of the last chapter, at least the character is the last concubine so there won’t be any more.
April 7, 2010, 3:56 pm
I hate it when books just get worse and worse!