The Ghost Brush is one of my very favourite kinds of historical novels — a novel that unearths the life of a woman whose story has been hidden from history because she’s been overshadowed by a famous man. In this case the woman is a Japanese painter named Oei, and the famous man is her father, Hokusai. They lived in nineteenth-century Japan, just as their country, closed off from much of the world, was about to be “discovered” by the West and rapidly modernized. This intimate story of two artists unfolds against the background of events that will reshape an entire society.
Oei is Hokusai’s apprentice, assistant, caregiver — and, eventually, the one who paints many of the great works attributed to her father. She is a non-traditional woman in an extremely traditional society, and throughout her life she struggles between the desire to be recognized as an artist in her own right, and her loyalty and duty to her father. In the end, loyalty and duty (and the expectations of other artists and art historians) win out to the point that Oei’s work is almost erased and forgotten.