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Hello everyone and welcome to the first discussion post for The Storyteller & His Three Daughters by Lian Hearn. Before you read this post or comment please make sure you’ve read the first section of the book, from pages 1-131 to avoid being spoiled for anything!
The setting of the book is late 1800s Japan which is something I’m not very familiar with and is not very well represented in my reading. It seems that it was a bit of a time of turmoil for Japan with the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of the Meiji Restoration which opened Japan up to trade with Europe. Japan wanted to be a superpower in world affairs and there was some thought that like other world superpowers such as Britain, France etc, they should also have colonies and for this they seemed to be eyeing off their neighbouring Korea. I found the history incorporated into the story quite interesting, especially seeing as it was done in a way that seemed quite subtle and not like it was deliberately educating the reader. Is anyone else as unfamiliar with the setting as me and if so, did you feel that the book did an adequate job of helping to set it for you? Do you like the style of the writing and the way that the story is unfolding?
The story centers around Sei, a storyteller in his fifties who is experiencing a slight decline in his career given that newer and younger storytellers are on the block, working in European fables and myths, making their work more exciting than Sei’s more traditional stories. He has three daughters all of whom he has arranged marriages for but two of the marriages break down in the first section of the book which means that he has two of his daughters come home to live. He is in some debt but an answer to his financial problems might’ve come in an offer from a charismatic man only Sei is unsure whether or not to accept or decline only to find out that the decision has been made for him – and now he must fulfill his part of the bargain. He looks to the comings and goings of his neighbours for inspiration for new stories and through them he discovers a Korean actor. These relationships that he observes become the basis for a new story and one of the lodgers at his neighbours house introduces him to French novels and they become the basis for several more.
A recurring interest in the novel so far is “nanshoku” or “man love” which seems to be culturally ingrained in Japan during the time of the warriors and is described as “more admirable than falling in love with a woman”. It ran to all facets of society before it was basically outlawed. Sei himself is familiar with it although claims to have had no real personal experience. However he becomes fascinated with several male-male relationships around him revolving around the young Korean actor Kyu and he becomes very invested in what is happening between all of the players for what he thinks will be his greatest story yet.
I found the role of women interesting – although Sei loves his daughters, he refers to his youngest daughter as their “third disappointment” and it’s clear that he mourns the loss of his only son, who died as a small child, very deeply. He hasn’t been able to speak of his son and he even avoids his two grandchildren at times because they remind him. Several of the female characters seem to breaking through the traditional molds: Michi, who lodges with Sei’s landlord and helps with meals and housework and is stated as being one of only 3 or 4 female medical students in the country. Another is Sei’s middle daughter who has left her wealthy but domineering husband and wishes to carve out a name for herself as a writer. Most other women within the story seem to fulfill traditional roles of homemaking and have little to do outside of the home.
Sei is described as cold and prideful and ignorant to his wife’s desires – do you agree or disagree with this description of him? What sort of man do you think him to be and do you think he knew what was really happening in the discussion and secret meeting with Yamagishi Takayuki? I find the idea of a storyteller really fabulous – more intimate than the theatre and more personal. I really enjoyed the stories that Sei performed near the end of this section and look forward to the ones he’s working on – although I do have a bit of an ominous feeling about what might happen!
I hope you all are enjoying this read so far and have lots to say about it in the comments and we’ll be back here next week for the second part of the discussion and wrap up.
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