I don’t know how I missed The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert when it was published in 2002. Perhaps I thought it was set in Japan, which is sometimes a turn off for me or for some other reason, this book was off my radar until a good friend recommended it for my book club recently.
This gem of a book was a New York Times Notable Book and received several other awards. And with good reason. Walbert’s first novel (she had previously published an acclaimed short story collection), The Gardens of Kyoto is a coming of age tale of a young woman during the time of World War II. The woman’s story reminded me of the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” because the female narrator is telling her child how she met his father. She is addressing the child directly, often saying “your father” even though, as readers, we are unclear who this man is exactly. But the resemblance to HIMYM ends there because this is a dark story about loss and love.
The novel unfolds in a fragmented fashion with different stories unfolding in bits and pieces. The title, Gardens of Kyoto, is actually a book within the book about the beautiful gardens in this treasured place in Japan. The fragmentation of the gardens symbolizes the narrative technique of the book. One of the gardens described in the book leaves “the viewer to fill in the landscape.” This book, too, requires the reader to fill in the gaps and re-read portions until they make sense. The narrator, near the end of the book, says, “We are none of us who we are.”
The book illustrates that illusion with the themes of family secrets that damage lives, the repression of women in those post-war years and the ravages of war. Everyone is damaged in some way by secrets and illusions. I found this to be an intriguing story beautifully written with all the fragments fitting together at the end.