A few months ago, I reviewed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, a novel about the Dutch enclave off the coast of Japan. The Shogun restricted the foreign concession to an island near Nagasaki in the eighteenth century. To my surprise, The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier is a sort of literary twin because it describes the lives of the Japanese, with the Dutch making highly regulated visits to the mainland at the discretion of the Shogun. Although The Ghost Brush takes place over a hundred years later, the extreme control over the lives of the population is, if anything, more onerous.
Oei is the daughter of a master Japanese painter, Hokusai, who gains international fame via the despised Dutch. However, in Japan art is a family craft.Oei and his apprentices all participate in the painting of Hokusai’s masterpieces. As Hokusai ages, Oei takes a greater role in her father’s painting, until in his very old age she paints new artworks in his style to raise funds to keep the household solvent. Oei is a ghost in the official records, barely seen behind the reputation of her father.
Over the years, Oei develops her own style and gradually gains commissions for her own paintings. In a time when women were virtually obliged to be subservient and to marry, Oei stays on the dangerous path of artist. The Shogun’s officers declare and enforce sweeping laws against artists and publishers, correctly discerning that paintings and books contain barely disguised criticism of establishment figures. But even the officials need entertainment, so they hypocritically patronize the district of prostitutes, nightclubs and restaurants. Oei straddles this night-world and the slums where she and her father so often relocated his studio to hide from the officials.
Katherine Govier entertains us with a magical story of historical importance, gleaned from ghostly records. Her beautiful language paints scenes in the seething city as well as in the forested countryside. The details that build the action convey how Japanese painting is done and why it is universally admired.