This historical novel, like the Pauline Gedge series on Egypt I read lately, had both the advantage and the drawback of being set in a world I know almost nothing about. Unlike, say, Vanora Bennett’s Wars-of-the-Roses England in Figures of Silk, where I already know the setting and the major players and I just have to fit these new characters into the story, a novel set in ancient Egypt or 1860s Japan has to work a lot harder to bring me up to speed. But once I’m drawn in to the setting, there’s so much more to learn, since I firmly believe (as I may have mentioned ad nauseum), that a good historical novel can teach you more about a time and place than all the history books every written.
The Last Concubine tells the story of Sachi, who grows up as the adopted daughter of an innkeeper in a rural Japanese village, knowing nothing about her true origins. Her world changes forever when an imperial princess, on her way to marry the shogun, passes through the village and takes Sachi into her entourage. In the secluded, formal, traditional world of the women’s palace in Edo, Sachi eventually becomes the last concubine of the last shogun — but that’s just a prelude to the turbulent events she’s about to be caught up in as Japan erupts into civil war and the world Sachi has grown up in, a world that seemed immutable for hundreds, even thousands of years, changes almost overnight.
Lesley Downer has created a wonderful character through whose eyes we are able to view the upheavals in Japanese society in the 1860s: because of her complicated background, Sachi is able to move and interact with people at a variety of different social levels. She’s uncomfortable, as any Japanese woman of that era would be, with stepping outside rigidly prescribed social roles, yet recognizes that because of the unique situation she finds herself in, she often has to do so. She also falls in love, in a society which doesn’t talk about or celebrate the concept of romantic love (or even have a word for it!) in the way we do in the West, and she has to struggle to fit her emotions in with her concepts of duty and social order. She also gets to see the beginning of the rapid Westernization and industrialization of Japan following the civil war — a fascinating story in and of itself.
My only quibble with this book is that it took me a long time to get invested in it, and I don’t know whether that was because the setting was so alien to me or because the book is just a slow starter. I was curious to know more about life as a concubine in the women’s palace (having researched and written about harem life for Esther), yet it wasn’t till quite a while after Sachi got out of the palace that the story really picked up for me. The book is over 400 pages, but it wasn’t till after page 200 that I found it hard to put down, and for some readers, that might be too much time to invest to get into a story. Others might find it a page-turner from the first. I’m just glad I stuck with it, because the last 200 or so pages kept me completely riveted, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to visit yet another new old world.