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26 July 2005

The Gardens of Kyoto

By Kate Walbert

"In a mesmerizing debut novel of romance and grief, a woman looks back on her coming of age in the long shadow of World War II and tells about the death of her favorite cousin, Randall, at Iwo Jima. When Ellen receives a package containing Randall's diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto, her bond to him is cemented and the mysteries of his short life starts to unravel."

For a reason I shall attribute to a lack of interest, this slim volume of scattered narratives took me nearly three weeks to complete. The author, whose previous published work won the O. Henry Prize for short stories, obviously enjoys the process of writing short vignettes because her novel was almost entirely comprised of brief encounters, be it with ideas or people. Those ideas and people were revisited frequently, alternating somewhat, but the broken narrative created a sense of distance between myself and the characters.

The narrator, Ellen, seems to be talking to someone, and only in the last few pages of the book does the reader come to understand the nature of her relationship to the unknown listener. Every description teems with detail, the result of hindsight perspective where any event worth remembering is remembered thoroughly. Other memories (and this I appreciated a great deal) were fuzzy and crippled by time. Ellen would freely admit to her listener: well, I cannot remember what happened next; he might have said something like that, but I can't recall; you would think I'd be able to provide more information, but no. In those passages, where the human frailty of age and memory were most keenly understood, I could almost believe that I was reading an oral recollection. When the detail was sharp and florid, I could no longer believe "Ellen" was speaking; I heard only the author.

At its conclusion, the reader is left alone to ponder the ramifications of Ellen's story, her decisions and what she must feel. The novel ends abruptly with no emotional resolution and no insight into the result of this prolonged narrative. She is speaking to someone important - what does she feel? what does that person feel? Nothing. While I admire subtlety (which is the word used most often in reviews of this book), I found it far too subtle to make a lasting, significant impact or provide resolution to the many complex emotions and situations the author took such great care in creating.


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