There are several books in the queue for me to write blurbs about, but I’m going to skip to the one I just finished an hour ago. Fudoki, by Kij Johnson, has got me thinking, and we all know that can only lead to trouble.
Before I get too far, I should note that I know the author, and though I have not known her long I consider her a friend. She was the head of the novel writing workshop that was the core excuse for my travels this summer. Take this into account when I say that this is a very good book and you should all buy multiple copies. (Only half of the above is a joke; this is a very good book but you only need to buy one copy each.) My association leads inevitably to bias, but please be assured that in this case the bias is simply that if I didn’t like the book I would just never mention it.
So, the book. Japan again. It begins as a journal of Princess Harueme, daughter of an emperor, half-sister of another, aunt and great-aunt of others. She is clever and curious, traits that are not appreciated in a woman of her station. She is also dying. She has spent her entire life confined by her station, by the obligations of serving at court, unable to chase the dreams that truly inspire her. Now she takes up brush and ink to tell us the story of a cat made human, and a journey to places the princess has only heard about, places she longs to see but never will.
There is magic in the story of the cat. Magic and adventure and war and death. The cat is transformed into a woman by a capricious god, the god of the road, but she never loses her intrinsic catness. Through her eyes we see the behavior of humans, and perhaps from this vantage we learn a bit. Harueme certainly does; as she writes her story she writes about herself as well, and we watch over her shoulder as she transforms, and along with her the past changes, as she sees old events with new eyes. She is a little surprised, I think, when she discovers how deeply she is capable of loving.
It’s a fantasy story, I guess, in the way that magical realism is fantasy. Here we are, back in Japan, in the year 1129, and the world is filled with inscrutable gods, demons, ghosts, and magical creatures. In fact, magic is so prevalent it’s not thought of as magic at all. It’s nature. Or you could argue that this book not a fantasy at all; the magic is contained within Harueme’s story of the cat. It is her invention — though maybe the magic starts to leak out of the story and into Harueme’s life. Maybe. Read the book and then we’ll talk.
(By the way, I know Princess Harueme is writing her tale in 1129 because the author included some notes at the end. Thanks, Kij, for adding those references and other insight. I have commented several times in these sporadic reviews that many books would benefit from a bit of extra info at the end. On the other hand, the list of characters at the beginning was totally unnecessary — she does a fine job reminding the reader of the relationships between characters during the narrative, and the list at the beginning just made me feel like I was going to be tested later. You, dear reader, enlightened by this review, can skim the list and read on, confident that all will make sense.)
Fudoki is a word used by cats to mean the history of the clan, the generations-long story of who they are and how they fit in. It is, for a cat, “self and soul and home and shrine.” Princess Harueme’s tortoise-shell protagonist is stripped of her fudoki, stripped of her very identity, and is put on the road. “I am nothing and no one,” she says. After a while it becomes apparent that Harueme is writing this to discover her own fudoki, her own tale of who she is.
This really is a very good book. It’s well-crafted — the language is natural but manages to surprise, and the atmosphere Johnson creates works very well. It really does feel like Harueme is writing the story; her voice is clear and her perspective permeates everything, even as her perspective changes. They are the words of a woman who is learning as she goes, in ink, with no way to revise what she has written before.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.