The Scarlet Kimono
There was a thread on the message boards a while ago asking “Where have all the historical sagas gone?” Well, I’ve found one, and it’s pretty darn good. The Scarlet Kimono is a sweeping adventure story in the mold of 1970s and 80s sagas. It has a lot of what I liked about those books, but avoids some of their bad points, like racism and rape.
In order to escape an arranged marriage, Hannah Marston, a teenage virgin (this is a saga, after all), stows away onboard a trade fleet bound for Japan. Over in Japan, Lord Taro Kumashiro goes through with his arranged marriage, but his wife hates him and his new sister-in-law is disturbingly interested in Taro. Plus, his long-time counselor is having visions of a redheaded foreigner who will disrupt Taro’s entire world.
Hannah is everything you could ask for in a classic heroine in the mold of Woodiwiss and Small: teenage, redheaded, and scrappy. However, she’s not stupid, nor does she win people over through her “adorable” gamine incompetence. She is justified in running away from her horrible fiance, and she tried to end up on her brother’s ship, so she’s not clueless about needing protection during a sea voyage. Plus, she learns Japanese from a crew member during their year-long voyage. (Although that’s a reasonable amount of time for basic conversation, it would have felt more realistic if Hannah had made some mistakes or asked questions about sophisticated vocabulary later in the book. I mean, why did a sailor teach her “concubine?”)
Courtenay does a nice job avoiding a number of the cliches of old historicals. For instance, she passes up not one but two opportunities for the heroine to be raped. (Sometimes it’s depressing, the things we have to be pleased by.) Hannah is actually lean and flat-chested, not a bosomy hourglass who magically becomes boyish when wearing pants. She’s also not the only hygienic person in early modern England: Hannah is just as smelly as everyone else until the Japanese sailor who is helping her hide tells her bluntly that she can’t share his cabin unless she bathes. I laughed when Hannah wondered why she should, since she had bathed last week.
What about the Japanese characters and the Japanese setting? I lived in Japan for several years, and I thought Courtenay did a solid but not outstanding job. It was refreshing not to see the Orientalism and fetishization that sometimes characterized writing about non-white cultures in old epics. Courtenay matter-of-factly incorporates aspects of culture like bathing and touched on the feudal system and its obligations. The titular scarlet kimono is a passive-aggressive gift from Lord Taro’s sister-in-law to Hannah, whose coloring looks awful in red, and this event rang amusingly true.
However, on the whole, the cultural characterizations didn’t go as deeply as I had hoped. While Courtenay avoided stereotypes, she ends up making Lord Taro relatively indistinguishable from the honor-driven, obligation-laden Scottish lairds and English barons who make up the bulk of heroes in this time period. The Japanese characters discuss sensitive issues explicitly (such as concerns about the shogun), which is culturally unrealistic, and aside from the obviously wicked sister-in-law, no Japanese characters act racist or even hostile towards Hannah. This is not a slur against Japan; rather it’s an observation that a physically unusual outsider who endangers the stability of a wealthy estate and captures the affections of a powerful lord is probably irritating more than one person. In terms of richness of setting, The Scarlet Kimono is less Outlander and more Julia Quinn.
Still, I think it might be exactly what a lot of people are looking for. Its low level of sensuality, adventurous teen heroine, and glamorous settings means it might be a good gift for the budding young romance reader in your life. If I had a book time machine, I’d send a copy back to myself, because man, I was getting tired of those rapes.