Sometimes we need a change from the popular fiction novels set in the U.S. One book that offers a definite change of time and scenery is the forthcoming Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler’s Wife), set in London. Another is The Commoner, a novel recently released in trade paperback form. This story takes us to post World War II Japan and moves us through a period of more than 55 years. The author, John Burnham Schwartz, knows a lot about what he writes as he lived in Japan as a younger man; something he wrote about in his earlier novel Bicycle Days.
Schwartz does a fine job of creating a different world, emphasizing the unique features of Asian culture such as humility, respect, duty and class differences. The latter comes into play as this is the tale of a young woman – a commoner – who is selected to marry the Crown Prince of Japan. Initially, the proposal of marriage is rejected but Haruko Endo is compelled by duty to family and country to accept the offer from a future monarch.
It is very clear that Haruko will have difficulties once she enters the Imperial Palace grounds and joins the Royal Family. One of the significant issues facing her is the fact that she was not the choice of the Empress, a domineering woman who usually gets her way. Schwartz is at his best in creating the characters of the two families, both royal and common. As a former gaijin, he does an excellent job of describing the very different world that is Japan, from its streets to its food to its birds, plants and flowers. He even describes smells that he links with this different country.
The story flows freely for 351 pages and is quite a satisfying one for the reader. But there are a few issues. First, Schwartz’s writing is generally fluid but every now and then a rough spot appears. For example, “The (fertility) test, in short said that one could; to be followed by the wedding, which declared that one must.” Perhaps this would read better in Japanese; it comes across as severely awkward in English.
Secondly, there appear to be some problems in the editing down of the tale. We learn that the Empress who precedes Haruko lives for a hundred years until she dies a natural death, and yet twice we see references to her “assassin.” No assassination attempt is included in the story, and the reader has to wonder if and when it was deleted.
Finally, this is one of those unfortunate cases where the entire story is too well summarized on the rear book cover. If you purchase this book, avoid reading the notes on the cover or everything will be given away too soon.
All in all, I much enjoyed this unique trip to the Land of the Rising Sun as written by the Japanese-speaking and English-writing Schwartz. A good read!