Thursday, 2 August 2012

Review: 'Across the Nightingale Floor' by Lian Hearn

Otori Nightingale.jpgI read this book probably 5 years ago and absolutely fell in love with it. I think it might be the main reason why I really want to go to Japan. A country that can inspire a story like this has to be brilliant. I therefore decided, yesterday at 5, to reread it. I was sucked straight back into the story and finished it the same evening, all 500 pages. 

Lord Otori, Takeo, and Takeo's new teacher Kenji set off to meet Kaede, a fifteen-year-old girl chosen as the future Lady Otori by a group of political collaborators. Takeo is still trying to come to terms with knowing that, through the father he never knew, he is one of the Tribe--a group of mysterious, ninja-like assassins who have allegiance to no one. When Takeo and Kaede first meet, they are drawn to each other, and without speaking a word, fall in love. But events are doomed to pull them apart, and soon they are each thrust into a battle for their lives.
This is a fascinating story. The author, Lian Hearn (a pseudonym for Gillian Rubinstein) , steeped herself with knowledge of the old Japan, samurais and the old feudal system and all of this comes out in a spectacular way. A flaw to historical fiction, which this novel is slightly, is often that there is more history than fiction and the plot gets lost in all the facts, making for a complicated read. In 'Across the Nightingale Floor' you get the feeling that you are accessing a world that gives you the possibility to learn so much, without forcing itself upon you. The knowledge is hidden away in sentences describing characters and their actions. 

Hearn herself said she wanted to highlight 'silence', which is very important in Japanese culture, and her writing style is therefore 'spare, elliptical and suggestive'. Takeo remains silent for a time, allowing Hearn to, in a very innovating way, describe her surroundings and Japan in detail. His amazing hearing means we get a real insight into the sounds of Japan around that time without them having to be obtrusive. 

The characters are very interesting. Especially those coming from the Tribe are very interesting since they often seem to battle with their loyalties and their incredible skills. The mystery surrounding them almost makes them an enemy, simply because the reader is not sure they can trust them. The same counts for most of the other characters. Because Hearn switches her narrative between Takeo Otori and Kaede Shirakawa we get to understand that no one seems to be who they are. In a society where honour and loyalty seem crucial on the outside, the danger of backstabbing betrayal is always around the corner. Kaede is probably my favourite character. She brings attention to the fact women were used as strategic chess pieces but not in a moany way. She is fully aware of her own importance and of how men see her and is not afraid to take advantage of this.

Although I am not a big fan of love-at-first-sight story lines, I really liked it between Kaede and Takeo. Their love does not only come out of desire but is, I think, also a reflection of their situation and of human nature. In the turbulence and political confusion surrounding them they recognize themselves in the other, the same need for something stable, something they can be sure off. Hearn is able to play with all the major themes of life: love, trust, honour, death, betrayal, desire and more, without becoming too moral or too philosophical. 

The imagery in the novel is, as expected, beautiful. Japanese art and architecture is gorgeous and it is clear that Hearn fell in love with it as well. Takeo takes on the identity of an artist at times and this allows Hearn to linger on these details that are oh-so important for setting the scene and allowing a reader's fantasy to make the book his or her own. It also shows a great respect on Hearn's side for the Japanese culture in trying to incorporate as many of its elements as possible into her story.

I cannot wait to start the second book this afternoon and have set myself the challenge to finish it in the evening again. I give this book...


This is a fascinating historical fiction, in which the fiction is not sacrificed to the history. The characters are intriguing and you are bound to feel for them. The imagery and plot line are breath-taking and the novel is bound to leave you wanting more. Thank God for the sequel.


  1. I had no idea Lian Hearn was a pen name! I've looked at her books for a while, not sure which one to start with. Sounds like this could be the one for me :)

  2. It sounds so interesting! I don't believe I've heard of this book...another one to add to my ever towering pile, lol. Thanks for the great review!