The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier (pub date 11/22/11)
“‘She paints but does not sew,’ they say. Hah! That could be my epitaph.”
Historical fiction can be hit or miss. Any author who writes in this genre has the doubly hard job of creating a compelling character and also staying accurate to the time period. When done just right, a historical novel is a great read, not to mention a fun way to get a history lesson. Set in 19th-century Japan, The Printmaker’s Daughter tells the story of a woman named Oei. Oei was the daughter of the famous Japanese artist Hokusai, best known for his piece “Beneath the Great Wave off Kanagawa”:
In the novel, Oei narrates her own life story, starting when she was a young child and was tasked with assisting her father in his work. Oei grows into an accomplished artist herself, and finds herself in a rivalry of sorts with her father. She struggles to balance her love for her father with her desire to be recognized for her artistic talent. Oei also describes other events in her life, from her friendship with the courtesans in a local brothel, to her love affairs and the politics of shogun-era Japan.
Oei is an awesome character. Living in a society in which women had few rights, Oei rejects the traditional gender roles and dedicates herself to her art. Having seen women being bought and sold at brothels, she vows never to be controlled by any man:
“If he had nothing else, a man had his own body. A woman too had her body. At least until she took an adult shape. Then, most likely, a man wanted it. If he took it, he gave it back worn and used. I watched these things and, perhaps without knowing, decided that I would be the kind of woman men did not want.”
The only man Oei is committed to is her father, the same man who is jealous of her ability as an artist.
This is an interesting historical novel. Little is actually known about the life of Hokusai, and almost nothing is known about his daughter. Some art historians have speculated that many of Hokusai’s later works were actually painted by Oei. That concept is explored in this book, but it seems that no one really knows for sure what really happened.
My only criticism of this book is this: It. Is. Too. Long. Rarely do I say that a novel needs to be cut down, but at over five hundred pages, this book is quite a long read. There is simply not enough story to justify the book being this long. Some passages go on and on without advancing the main story at all. Aroung the middle of the story the tense changes from first person to third person and then back again for seemingly no reason. While overall I enjoyed the book, it would have made a better impression on me if I did not have to lumber through the more long-winded chapters. Still, the writing is solid and the time period is fascinating. The Printmaker’s Daughter is a novel rich in history and with a feminist soul that touches on the often difficult relationship between fathers and daughters.