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.
Oei and Hokusai are both strong, memorable characters, and their city of Edo with its bustling world of artists, writers, prostitutes and others who live on the margins of society, is vividly drawn. This is not a book to race through quickly like some I’ve read lately: it’s a slow, thoughtful book that rewards a careful reading with a rich depiction of a lost world.
So why did I feel cheated, you ask? Well, I nearly always buy e-books nowadays, but as we’re trying to save a bit of money for summer vacation and I’d been spending so much on new e-books lately, I saw that The Ghost Brush was checked in at the library and decided to save a few dollars by reading the library copy. Only after I’d almost finished did I discover that there’s an extended e-book which contains MORE STORY! I got robbed by trying to be thrifty!! Since I started e-reading, this is the very first time I’ve come across an e-book that is substantially different in content from the print version, and it’s the one time I try to save money by not buying the e-book. So, I am highly recommending The Ghost Brush, but if you enjoy e-reading as I do, I’d recommend getting the e-version. And if you’re looking for it in the US, it’s going to be released there under a different title — The Printmaker’s Daughter — later this year.