T he Big Wave, by the 19th century artist Hokusai, is perhaps the single most recognized Japanese work of art. The artist Hokusai was prolific and never satisfied with his work. He evolved his style continuously and painted until the end of his long life.
Or did he?
Katherine Govier’s book points to Oei, Hokusai’s unconventional daughter, as the real artist behind the masterpieces produced during the final years of her father’s life.
The Ghost Brush is the story of a woman lost to history, from an era and society when women were not allowed to claim a career or identity for themselves. Oei is unforgettable, driven to paint by her own talent, exasperated by her father’s eccentricity, bound to him by grudging admiration and love.
Set in 19th century Japan during the Edo period, the novel plunges us into a society whose rulers resist modernization; the Shogun issues new rules nearly every day to ban some activity or object they suspect might harm their citizen’s morals. With each new edict, artists and writers must find ways to outsmart the Shogun’s laws.
It’s not simply a matter of free expression or wit – if an artist paints calendars for a living and calendars are suddenly outlawed, a family could starve. Oei’s family teeters constantly between poverty and starvation, not only because of the constantly changing laws that force Hokusai to find new ways to paint for money, but because Hokusai is useless when it comes to money.
He scorns it, can’t manage it, won’t sell his paintings to people he doesn’t like. He’s not difficult, as Oei says. He’s impossible.
Father and daughter are bound to each other from the moment of her birth. She understands his talent like no one else, while he is perversely proud of her ugliness, her intelligence, her unconventional behaviour. Hokusai even takes along his little daughter when he visits the Yoshiwara, a licensed pleasure district of brothels, bars, and restaurants that is as much of a character as any of the humans in the novel. Govier submerges us in prose that unleashes dense images of a raucous, vulgar, and brilliant world.
It is in the Yoshiwara that they meet Shino, the noble-born courtesan, sold to a brothel by her husband for disobeying his orders. This bohemian world introduces us also to the playwright Sanba, who becomes Oei’s longtime lover, poets and painters, courtesans and a blind masseuse. During Hokusai’s spells of restlessness he takes her out of the city and they trudge country roads to fishing villages, to the sea and views of Mt. Fuji. There is even a foreign doctor from the Dutch East India Company who buys Hokusai’s paintings, a sale that puts the artist under suspicion from the Shogun’s spies.
But the story revolves around Hokusai and Oei, who becomes her father’s apprentice. She runs his studio, corrects his students’ work and finishes his paintings when he loses interest – so that she can sell them to support the family. Even after she realizes that Hokusai craves recognition for his art above all else and takes her loyalty for granted, she is bound to the tyranny of his genius.
I rank this novel as one of the best I’ve read in the last ten years. Oei is an amazing creation, a stubborn, talented woman born into a tightly-regulated society. She refuses to conform and manages to dodge censure until she tries to paint her way out of her father’s shadow.
But there’s more to the book than interesting relationships and memorable characters. Govier’s writing is stellar. How she manages to infuse her writing with so much vivid, sensory detail without mangling her sentences into overwrought heaps of prose is beyond me. You breathe in the smell of salted fish on sticks roasting over a charcoal hibachi, hear the high-pitched cries of vendors, feel the touch of snow released from a grey sky and watch the procession of courtesans stepping carefully through the streets between tenement houses built of wood and paper.
The Ghost Brush was pure pleasure from start to finish.
What I Learned About Writing from Reading This Book
There’s a brief first chapter where Oei’s ghost introduces herself and her father.In the next chapter, Oei is born. She describes her father, her family, her neighborhood.Next chapter, our view of her world widens out. More about her father, how he treats his family. We follow Oei and Hokusai through the Yoshiwara, meet new characters, learn more about Edo.Only in chapter four, when Shino the courtesan appears, do we see a key relationship and story thread developing.
Sure, Hokusai is a pretty entertaining character and Oei’s voice is wonderful: funny, ironic, blunt. But is it enough to keep me reading?
Finally, I think I’ve worked it out. Vignettes. I don't know what else to call them, but within each of these early chapters, Govier has written a series of vignettes that move us deeper into the world of the novel. Sometimes they are told as narrative, sometimes as scenes, or slices of life. Each vignette contains a story arc or two and reveals more about Oei’s circumstances. Each one layers on more tension until we understand that beneath the untidy glamour of the Yoshiwara, there runs an undercurrent of despair.
Through the vignettes we realize that like nature, political danger is an omnipresent source of conflict. The characters deal with irrational edicts the way they would nature – they try to survive by skirting around the worst of it.
It takes a lot of storytelling skill, exceptional prose, and an interesting setting to pull off something like this. Kids, don’t try it at home! And if you do, make sure you have a good editor on your side! It’s going to be a while and a few more manuscripts before I feel competent enough to attempt anything like thisNOTE: This post was migrated from an older website and comments didn’t survive the trip. So please feel free to add new comments below.