Literary The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
#1  sun surfer 04-15-2020, 04:39 PM
'The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, Tsukiyama uses the Japanese invasion of China during the late 1930s as a somber backdrop for her unusual story about a 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen who is sent to his family's summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu's secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu's generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu's soulmate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.'


There are two phases of discussion. The first begins immediately and may contain conversations about anything pre-completion of the selection including reading progress, section thoughts, outside info, etc. The second begins on the 1st and also includes anything post-completion. These are recommended to help us discuss things in a similar timeframe but anyone can discuss any part or aspect at any time.

This is the MR Literary Club selection for April 2020. Everyone is welcome so feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time; the more the merrier!

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#2  AnotherCat 05-01-2020, 07:01 PM
I am around 65% of the way through this now and enjoying it. Seems an easy read with a good storyline and interesting characters, the prose is straightforward and reads smoothly for me.

#3  Bookworm_Girl 05-02-2020, 10:08 PM
I just started reading today and am enjoying it. I am off work next week and expect to catch up quickly. It's a nice change in pace from the previous months.

I do not know much about this history so it will be interesting to read about it. I see that the author comes from a diverse cultural background. Her father is Japanese, and her mother is Chinese. I expect that influenced why she chose this subject matter. I haven't looked for any author interviews yet since I am trying to avoid spoilers for now.

#4  sun surfer 05-03-2020, 02:40 PM
I'm finished with it and really enjoyed it. I'm glad you're liking it, AnotherCat and Bookworm_Girl.

I'll wait till you're both closer to finished to discuss spoilery plot things but I will say this taught me a bit about Japanese-Chinese conflicts. I don't know a lot about the subject and honestly did not know that pre-WWII Japan was invading and taking over parts of China. I do know a little about Japan and Korea's tense history, but I'd missed that similar things happened with China.

#5  AnotherCat 05-03-2020, 06:55 PM
I finished the book last night and enjoyed it all.

The only criticism I have is it gave me the impression that leprosy was not contagious (it is) and if I recall correctly that was specifically stated. Whether that was just the collective view of the characters or not I do not know but I found it hard to believe that the concentration of it in the village would let them support that view.

#6  sun surfer 05-03-2020, 08:21 PM
I actually looked that up afterwards because I thought the same thing, and the book didn't address it either way (that I recall anyway). What I found from a quick search was that it's only mildly contagious and even then only after frequent prolonged contact of months/years. I suppose that would put Matsu at risk definitely and possibly, slightly Stephen, although on the other hand Stephen could've been contagious to others with his tuberculosis as well (I kept expecting that his sister was going to get it because of her going in to see him before he left China).

It does make me wonder what the current scientific thought was, and what the societal belief was, on the contagiousness of leprosy at the time the book is set in.

#7  Bookworm_Girl 05-03-2020, 11:58 PM
I thought was odd too. I was surprised that it can take up to 20 years for symptoms to occur. It seems that they didn't have any medicinal cures until the 1940s.

I was not familiar with dry landscape. It was fun looking at images so that now I can picture what is in the book. Wikipedia has a good article on the history and symbolism.

#8  AnotherCat 05-04-2020, 05:55 PM
Quote sun surfer
...I suppose that would put Matsu at risk definitely and possibly, slightly Stephen, although on the other hand Stephen could've been contagious to others with his tuberculosis as well (I kept expecting that his sister was going to get it because of her going in to see him before he left China)...
I also wondered about Stephen and his tuberculosis. Back around 2006 I was commuting back and forwards to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea doing an assignment and was taken boating a few times; out at the entrance of the harbour is Gemo Island which had an isolation hospital (and nothing else, as best I recall) for both leprosy and tuberculosis on it which I was able to see. It was closed around mid 1970s I was told. The cohabitation of both diseases considered needed to be isolated there came to my mind when I read this book.

As an aside to that, Papua New Guinea is currently going through a significant increase of leprosy cases, so while it is treatable it is not always able to get treated due to non medical reasons.

When I was around 10 years old or so my father was diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis after a chest x-ray for other reasons and placed in an isolation ward (with others). It turned out that the x-rays showed scarring from having had, probably tuberculosis, sometime in the past but self recovered. He had spent some years overseas previously, including in India and the Middle East. After all that explanation the nub is that despite being in an isolation ward and thought to be infected, together with others, both myself and my younger sister were free to visit him with no restrictions.

So it seems there are plenty of contradictions, perhaps like we face now.

And some more (Oh No! ). Leprosy is basically non-existent here in NZ but there is the occasional imported case (in worldwide statistics I found it is shown as "None"); way back I was chatting with our family doctor and he was feeling particularly pleased with himself as that morning he had diagnosed his first ever case of leprosy, apparently an achievement due to its rarity and symptoms.

#9  sun surfer 05-06-2020, 02:10 PM
Tuberculosis may be even more relevant to our current situation now- I just saw an article predicting that covid and the global lockdown will cause millions more tuberculosis cases and deaths.

#10  Deskisamess 05-17-2020, 10:46 AM
I enjoyed this book. The writing was nicely descriptive and calm, and I had no trouble "picturing" what was going on.

I was more puzzled by the activity level of the young man with TB. He did an awful lot of walking etc. but I didn't let this detract from the story. Overall, I totally enjoyed the book, even with the overall sad content.

As a side note, my grandfather worked for years (1950's-1960's) in a local TB sanatorium. When he was old and on his own, he ended up in a nursing home near that now closed TB facility, and the TB was was "reactivated" in his system. He didn't develop actual TB, so they didn't isolate him, but it was there in his system.

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