on 30 September 2012
Japan during the 1870's is a cultural melting pot. Unified after a bitter civil war, it is becoming a modern country; commoners can marry their children into any class, there are railways, rickshaws and schools for girls. It would seem that the hatred between North and South is finally over, but the bitter rivalry between the Southern Satsuma clan, and the Northern Aizu clan still rages on.
This book tells the story of Taka, the privileged daughter of a Satsuma general's second family, and Nobu, a poor Aizu samurai; who meet as children, then fall in love, something which is unacceptable to both families, and must be kept secret. `Across a Bridge of Dreams' begins when the Satsuma clan is ruling the country, but all things change as the northern clansmen rise in rebellion and the government is sent crashing down. Nobu joins the army, and he and his brothers seek revenge upon the Satsuma. But this means that Nobu will have to fight and possibly kill Taka's father and brother. Taka will have to make a choice between her family and the man she loves.
I am not familiar with Japanese history, but Lesley Downer brings the period to life. Hierarchy and culture are observed with fascinating attention to detail; in particular the life of the geishas, their rituals and dress, and the living conditions of different strata of society. We see the influence of the Western world beginning to make itself felt in Tokyo, and how traditional life carries on in the country side. This book felt like an oriental version of `Gone with the Wind', but with a happier conclusion. There was a chance here for the author to have delivered a shock ending, which in some ways might have been more fitting, given the state of the country and the war at that time.
The book was divided into six sections and had the appearance of a Japanese folktale. Folklore plays a big part throughout the story, and it colours everyday life for the characters in it. I really enjoyed reading this book; it opened a window onto a world with which I was totally unfamiliar, but which I have every intention of visiting again.
Based on the true story of the 'last sumurai' this novel is the unashamedly romantic tale of Taka and Nobu, two young people from opposing clans, who fall in love and face bitter opposition from their families and from society.
It is the 1870s and, after a brutal civil war between the north and the south of the country, Japan is now becoming more modern and keen to adopt some of the ideas from the western world: railways, schools for girls, western dress and even certain items of western food are becoming more common. Ideas about class and status are supposed to be shifting and the hatred between the north and the south is purported to be over, or at least that is the official line, but the reality is somewhat different.
Taka is the young daughter of General Kitaoka, from the powerful southern Satsuma clan, her mother is the General's geisha concubine; Nobu is an Aizu from the defeated north and a servant in Taka's family's household. Both teenagers, Nobu and Taka become friendly and when Taka notices that Nobu is intelligent but not fully educated, she decides to help him by sharing with him the things she is learning at school. However, knowing that Taka's family would strongly disapprove of their friendship, Nobu's lessons must take place in secret, and this stolen time together makes their liaison both exciting and precious. When Taka's older brother, Eijiro, discovers them together, he becomes violently angry and throws Nobu out onto the streets. Over the next few years, although Taka and Nobu have no further contact with each other, they neither of them forget one another and when they do meet up again, when Nobu has grown into a strong, handsome young man and Taka has become a beautiful young woman, they both realize that their attraction for each other has developed into something stronger. However, knowing that their love will be totally unacceptable to their families both Taka and Nobu have to face a very difficult future ahead of them, especially when civil war breaks out again and Nobu will have to fight against Taka's father and her brother. Taka is now in the almost impossible situation of having to choose between her family and the young man she has fallen in love with.
Lesley Downer who is half Chinese, but fascinated with Japan, has lived there in the past and has written both fiction and non-fiction books about Japan, the Samurai, and particularly about the geisha. This book, therefore, is full of interesting details about Japanese culture and history, including factual information and some fascinating fables from folklore. 'Across a Bridge of Dreams' is an engaging tale of love, rivalry, passion and revenge and, although this is a rather romantically sentimental and not entirely unpredictable story, it would be a good choice for effortless summer holiday reading, and one that would work equally well as an absorbing read for a wet weekend on the sofa.
on 4 January 2013
The magic of Leslie Downer's writing is hard to describe. There is a directness about the reading experience that makes me feel I am right there with her characters, living in them, in fact, living their lives with them. Every fictional book she writes is based on deep and extensive research into the history of Japan, and each story fits appropriately within whatever was actually going on in the culture at that time. But her research is not just something 'intellectual' and remote. In an early nonfiction book, 'On the Narrow Road,' which is about a journey she made in search of a 17th Century poet's life, she says, "what I was after was not history, not information, but something more amorphous and more alive -- to get under the skin of this place and thus somehow to get close to Basho himself." This is, I believe, the source of that astonishing immediacy in her fiction. She is a real master. Like her other novels, this one is a masterpiece.
on 16 September 2012
Across a Bridge of Dreams is the first novel that I have read which is set in nineteenth century Japan. It follows Nobu and Taka who meet as teenagers in Tokyo. Nobu saves Taka, her mother and her aunt from an attacker at a restaurant. As a thank you, he is offered a job at their house. Soon Nobu and Taka become very close and Taka begins to teach him lessons. However, Nobu is from the north of the country (from Aizu), whilst Taka is from the Satsuma clan in the south. As tensions between the north and south begin to rise again, Eijiro Taka's brother, banishes Nobu from the house and forbids any contact between the two. Even without the differences in their status it seems like the two of them are destined to be kept apart.
The plot itself is full of twists and turns, which centre around real historical events including the Satsuma Rebellion. It is very gripping and I was reading late into the night, desperate to find out what would happen. I enjoyed the way that Japanese fairytales were woven into the story, giving it a magical feel.
I loved Taka's character, she is a strong heroine who is not afraid to follow her heart. She is also caring and puts her family, especially her mother, before her own needs. There is a strong Romeo and Juliet feeling to this book, it felt like the two forbidden lovers were destined to be kept away from one another.
I really enjoyed reading `Across a Bridge of Dreams' and was fascinated by the Japanese culture and the historical background of the novel. I will definitely be on the look out for more books by Lesley Downer.
on 19 August 2012
I have never had an interest in cold, bare factual history so finding a well written novel which describes how the Japanese people lived and thought in the late 19th century was inspiring. Lesley provides an excellent historical background of the different factions and the internal conflicts that this caused, she has thoroughly researched the subject so there is no fanciful story telling about these difficulties. However, her hero and heroine are pure fiction and their story leads you through the history. There is a great deal of emphasis on how the people thought about honour and dishonour and how they would need to deal with any difficulties. Running through the book are fables and poems that underline these beliefs thus providing the reader with a factual but easy to understand insight into the culture at the time of the clans from the north and the south and how they maintained their dislike of each other.
Another thing that the author has highlighted is the vast difference between the lives of men and women, the subservience, the class differences and how religion and story telling affected their thinking even though they were attempting to become more modern. The internal conflicts are brought out and examined thoroughly during the story telling and this also keeps you turning the pages.
An excellent read that I am very happy to recommend if you want an insight into Japanese culture and history.
on 2 December 2012
A tale of love across two very different clans set in Japan in the 1870s. I don't know very much about Japan or its culture, but this book was a pleasure to read. An excellent love story running alongside the historical aspect.
History is very much in evidence in Lesley Downer's book, but the tale centres on Taka, a general's daughter from the Satsuma south and Nobu, a poor Aizu samurai from the north. They meet as teenagers and fall in love, yet knowing that that they can never be together. Their families would never permit such a relationship.
Of further interest is the geisha part of Japanese culture. Taka's mother is not married to her father, as she is his geisha, an acceptable occurrence at the time. Taka is part if her father's second family and rarely sees her father. The book strongly highlights the differences between men and women in Japanese culture at the time. Although Western influences are beginning to creep into Tokyo.
As civil war takes over Japan, Nobu joins the rebellion seeking to destroy the government and ultimately Taka's father and brother. Equally, Taka knows she may well have to choose between her father and her heart. Taka comes across as a very strong young lady, who is well aware of her background, but knows she has to follow her heart for her own happiness.
A thoroughly enjoyable book, well researched and very well written.
on 31 August 2012
Lesley Downer has completely mastered the nuance and detail of late nineteenth-century Japan, when the country was transformed in the space of a generation from a feudal shogunate to a modern industrial (and imperial) power. The reader can sit back and enjoy the lush and vivid descriptions of a vanished world. Downer has a gift for the telling phrase. The story unfolds in a period when girls, for example, "didn't need to be able to read or write much more than the slip to tell the dyer how to colour the yarn." A marriage go-between "had a sagging, lugubrious face with pouches like money bags under his eyes . . ." and characters caught in the midst of civil war have "faces pale as tofu". Downer's account of the Satsuma Rebellion, the last stand of the samurai who resisted what they saw as the corrupting tide of modernisation, is built around a plucky heroine and her intrepid lover - the two, as fate would have it, on opposite sides of the conflict. A compelling recreation of bygone Japan with a classic love story at its core, the outcome remains uncertain until the final pages.
on 11 December 2012
This is a story of both love and war in the Japan of the 1870s. It was a time of cultural and political change that resulted in inevitable social divisions. There is a couple who fall in love despite the odds, a geisha, a war lord and the arrival of those ugly beef-eating barbarians.
The Author introduces us to the protagonists but also to a culture that is both mysterious and fascinating. Across a Bridge of Dreams isn't a dry history book but it deals with a country that was, and is, culturally and traditionally rich. This would be an absorbing Christmas read for anyone looking for more substance than your regular historical novel.
Lesley Downer is a great writer on all things Japanese.
on 13 May 2016
Japan in the 1870s is on the cusp of change.
The flower and willow time of the Geisha and the Samurai is passing; the forward-thinking are adopting Western dress and more, educating their daughters, working in banks and eating beef. It is also a time of unrest where the ruling Satsuma clan are threatened by corruption within and the long memories and simmering revenge of the resentful and defeated Aiku. Against this background Nobu and Taka fall in love defying barriers of class and clan.
A Romeo and Juliet story set amongst the cherry trees, Taka’s mother is a renowned Geisha and her father a respected general; Nobu is a servant from the despised Aizu class. Their love is doomed and Taka is promised in an arranged marriage. However when civil war breaks out, positions are reversed and Taka flees south near her father’s mountain eyrie and Nobu is part of the opposing national forces. War is not a tea ceremony and Taka must forget her dancing and calligraphy and take up the halberd as a samurai woman.
This is an absorbing love story set in a turbulent and interesting period of history. Lesley Downer has written extensively on the Geisha culture and she draws on this knowledge and the true story of the Last Samurai to create a period-perfect romance with likeable and engaging characters. Love and revenge are powerful emotions, the plot line is strong and the setting fascinating making this a great summer read.
on 21 December 2012
Lesley Downer knows her stuff. Before turning to fiction, she wrote a shelf of deeply researched and highly engaging nonfiction on Japan, covering everything from poetic past to the neon present. Indulging her passion for the fascinating period of mid-nineteenth-century transition in Japan, she creates vivid fictional characters that embody the turmoil of a turbulent time--while still grounding her gripping storytelling in highly detailed fact. There's no better way to be introduced to a remarkable and often overlooked moment in history.