The Last Concubine (2008): Lesley Downer


Ever since I went to Japan, I’ve been curious to learn more about its ancient feudal culture. While this may not be the kind of serious historical introduction that I should be reading, it does help to give a certain flavor of the atmosphere and, besides, Lesley Downer is a reliable guide. I read her history book Geisha about six months ago and was impressed then by the engaging way she wrote about these mysterious, endlessly fascinating creatures. As one who has studied and lived in Japan, she’s managed to get a feel for the complexities of the country’s social history, and her knowledge of its customs and traditions pervades every corner of this novel.

This is, in many ways, a predictable historical romance: the court lady; the rugged outlaw; the forbidden love in a time of war. It isn’t quite as gripping as the non-fictional Geisha, but it has charm and a quiet elegance. Here we follow the story of Sachi, who has grown up in a modest village on the main road between Kyoto and Edo, where her parents run an upmarket inn for the use of great lords and imperial officials. Hers has been a happy childhood, spent exploring the hills with her group of friends and helping her mother prepare the rooms for their august visitors, but Sachi has always known that she’s different. Her fine features and pale skin stand out among the swarthy locals and, when she is eleven years old, those same qualities prove to be her passport to another world. The Princess Kazu, the Emperor’s sister, passes through the village on her way from Kyoto to marry the shogun in Edo and, spotting Sanchi’s pretty face, she takes her on as a maid.

Sanchi’s move casts her into a new world, full of unspoken alliances and dangers, at the heart of the great palace in Edo. Here three thousand women while away their days in the Women’s Quarters, keeping chaste in their service of the shogun, whom most of them will never even see. As the years pass, Sanchi learns the fine arts of being a court lady, from calligraphy and poetry to dancing and the handling of a halberd. By the age of fifteen, she is so beautiful that the princess sees a new future for this little maid: as a gift for the shogun himself, as his new concubine. Yet that future fails to materialise as anticipated, for it’s 1867 and, while life within the Women’s Quarters follows its time-honoured fashion, the seeds of civil war are in the breeze. Beyond the castle walls, the country cracks apart, with the lords of the south demanding an end to the shogun’s rule and the restoration of power to the Emperor; while those in the north defend the last traces of the shogun’s authority. When Kazu asks Sanchi to undertake a desperate mission, she and her best friend Taki find themselves escaping from the palace into an unfamiliar, brutal world, in which they must rely on the good faith and honour of three rogue samurai.

For me, the book’s main appeal was in its description of the cloistered life of the palace women, lived according to rules laid down centuries before. I knew nothing about this – indeed, as Downer explains in her author’s note, very few records of this closed world survive – and the picture that emerges is both more restricted and more dynamic than I’d imagined. The vast majority of the women in the shogun’s palace would never even have seen a man after entering the palace, let alone socialised with one, and Downer  evokes the long hours of a wholly female world. Primping, gossiping and games pass the time, while the women’s existence is dictated by a hierarchy as rigid and unforgiving as any beyond the castle walls, with former shoguns’ consorts still pulling the strings, and the lower ranks living in fear of their superiors. I suppose this is, in effect, a harem, but it doesn’t have the voluptuous abandon that such a word conjures up. On the contrary, while these women are expected to pursue beauty and modesty, they are also trained to be formidable warriors, as in time of war they might well form the last defence for the shogun. It was a pleasant surprise to see Sanchi and her friends training with sticks and halberds, honing their skills so that they could be as deadly in their own way as any samurai.

Downer also magics up the eloquent understatement of Japanese traditions, which seem so simple and evocative to me: the viewing of cherry blossoms, the thrill of the annual mushroom-picking festival, or the sending of an incomplete famous poem to an absent loved one, who is expected to write back with the final lines. There are moments when the plot feels ever so slightly contrived, especially as Sanchi finds out more about her own past, but the writing is generally full of poise and grace, and there’s no doubt that Downer has chosen an historical period full of incident and drama. At least now I have learned a little about the civil war, the arrival of English forces in Japan, and the transference of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo at this pivotal moment in the country’s history. Even better, it’s all told in a light, easy style.

I remember seeing at least one other novel by Downer in the library, so I might give that a go too in the hope of broadening my knowledge of another period of Japanese history. As I recall, the title was The Courtesan and the Samuraiso it may not offer a radically different story to the present novel, save in the rank of the woman. But here’s a conundrum. After finishing this novel, I’ve found it described as ‘Book II’ of The Shogun Quartet. The Courtesan and the Samurai is Book III and The Samurai’s Daughter Book IV, but I can’t for the life of me find Book I. Can anyone help? And perhaps you can also help in another way. Have you read any historical novels set in Japan that you can recommend? I’d love to read a novel about an earlier period in the country’s history, and it doesn’t have to be a love story. You know me: with my affection for swordsmen and noble deeds, I would be very happy to read samurai tales as well…

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16 thoughts on “The Last Concubine (2008): Lesley Downer

  1. SHANIF DEWANY says:

    Hello. I have really enjoyed reading your book reviews and always look forward to reading the latest ones.

    Please do visit the homepage of Lesley Downer’s website. As she states, her upcoming novel ‘The Shogun’s Queen’ is actually a prequel and chronologically the first volume in the quartet.

    You may also want to try Kij Johnson’s ‘The Fox Woman’, a historical fantasy set in medieval Japan.


    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Shanif. I’m so glad you enjoy the blog and thank you *so* much for clearing up that mystery about the first book in the quartet! Enigma solved. I’ll have to look out for The Shogun’s Queen, then, as the earlier period is a bit more to my taste than the period when Western influence is beginning to intrude on the traditions and lifestyles.

      And thank you too for the recommendation of The Fox Woman. I’ve added it to my wishlist on Amazon and hope to read it soon! I’m so ignorant about non-Western myths and legends that it looks like the perfect way to begin finding out more about Japanese fables. Much appreciated!

    • SHANIF DEWANY says:

      It’s my pleasure. Like all people crazy about books and reading, I am more than happy to provide recommendations. You may also want to try Robert Shea’s ‘Shike’, a two volume fictional account of the Mongol invasion of Japan. I haven’t read it yet but would love to hear your views as I am sure you will most likely get to it before I do.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Thanks again Shanif! I went straight to Amazon and bought both volumes of Shike. The prospect of Mongols as well as Japan was too much to resist. I’ve wanted to read more about the Mongols for ages (I’ve had Cecilia Holland’s Until the Sun Falls on my Kindle for years now but haven’t got round to it yet), and an added impetus came from an exhibition about Genghis Khan that I saw in Philadelphia last year. Looking forward to reading it, although it may not be in the *near* future (my TBR pile is starting to look terrifying even to me)… I’ll keep you posted!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I am always up for utterly delightful, of course. And this looks wonderful: a sort of 10th-century court lady’s version of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from what I can judge of the preview. Definitely going to look into this. Which is the best translation, do you think? Amazon reviews suggest the older Penguin translation by Ivan Morris… Thank you!

      [Update] Having added The Pillow Book to my list, Amazon suddenly sparked into life and has recommended Rashomon, The Tale of Genji and a book rather charmingly called Essays in Idleness, which I think I shall have to read… 🙂

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        I actually read The Pillow Book in a German translation, so have no clue how the English ones are or even what is availabile.
        I emphatically second Rashomon both the story by Ryonosuke Akutagawa and the movie by Akira Kurosawa. Tale of Genji I have not read yet, but it is very important, and by many considered one of the greatest novels ever. I’ve actually been considering of maybe tackling it when I’m done with the Classical Chinese novels.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Okey doke, I’ve just bought The Pillow Book in what seems to be the best English translation, and I’ve also got hold of a copy of Genji, so they should be with me in a few days. I hear Genji is a bit of a doorstop. Maybe we could do a joint reading, as I’m sure you’ll have lots of valuable insights thanks to your current Asian project? Of course I won’t be starting either of them all that soon because I’m very conscious that a) I still have about five library books to read, and b) if I don’t read Post Captain soon you will give up on me entirely…

  2. Helen says:

    I haven’t read anything by Lesley Downer but I think I would like to try this book. It does sound interesting. Have you read Shogun by James Clavell? It’s set in Japan in the 1600s and could be the sort of thing you’re looking for. Other than that, I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read about Japan.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Helen! I haven’t read Shogun, but it has been sitting on my shelf for a while. Once I’ve ploughed my way through my library books, and kept my promise to Heloise to *finally* read the second Aubrey and Maturin novel, I’m hoping to read it. My only fear about it so far is that it might be a tiny bit like The Last Samurai and have a ‘white saviour’ feel to it, but in any case I’m looking forward to settling down with it at last. I vaguely remember there was a film or TV adaptation of it with Richard Chamberlain in the lead role. I wonder if that’s any good?

  3. Melita says:

    Memoirs of a Geisha isn’t bad. If you haven’t read Liza Dalby’s Geisha (nonfiction), I think that’s a must. I’m fascinated by the idea of geiko and maiko and that book has lots of details.

    Pat Barr wrote a generational saga book starting in the mid- to late-1800s, Kenjiro.

    Laura Joh Rowland, Shinju (first book)
    Dale Furutani, both historical and contemporary
    Sujata Massey, contemporary about a Nisei (or maybe sansei) making a living in Tokyo selling antiques

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hi Melita. Oh yes, I read Memoirs of a Geisha back in the day and really enjoyed it. It’s beautiful. I haven’t read Liza Dalby’s Geisha, only Lesley Downer’s, but I am aware of it and would be interested to give it a go. Liza is the only Westerner to have actually worked as a geisha, isn’t that right? And thank you for the wealth of other suggestions! You’ve obviously an expert in this area… I shall look forward to exploring some of these in due course!

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