REVIEW: The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier
DAUGHTER, sister, friend, lover, wife, confidante, artist. Of all these roles, Oei is best remembered for the first. She was the daughter of Hokusai, the 19th-century Japanese artist and printmaker whose most famous work is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. And what history remembers her least as is the last one: artist.
This is despite the fact that art historians have strong reason to believe that Oei was even more talented than her famous father. Part of their evidence comes from the opinions of her contemporaries who deemed her to be “an excellent artist,” and even for a time “the most famous artist in Edo.” She started working in her father’s studio at a young age and assisted him until the day he died. In addition to the physically intensive work of grinding pigments, she was responsible for filling colour and drawing the intricate details in several of his works. In fact, it is her exceptionally fine technique and use of strong colours that distinguish her as an artist.
But somehow Oei the artist became lost in history. Until recently that is, when she was rediscovered by author Katherine Govier who made Oei the subject of her latest novel, The Printmaker’s Daughter. (The novel was first published as The Ghost Brush in Canada.) Govier has meticulously, almost lovingly, reconstructed Oei from the few shreds of information that are known about her life. There is also a single picture made of her in her lifetime: a cartoon drawn on a receipt found in old archives.
It is known that Oei was the third among Hokusai’s daughters, that she was homely with a strong, masculine-looking jaw, and that she was married to one of her father’s students for 10 years. She was also known to be a superbly talented artist. After divorcing her husband she returned to work in Hokusai’s studio: “I am the unbeautiful, the untended, the unintended, the unofficial painter … You can quote me. I am Oei.”
It is not only Oei whom Govier has bought back to life, but also 19th-century Edo, which is the ancient name for Tokyo. The Shogun ruled with an iron fist and the sword-carrying samurai were a class above the rest. Artists, writers and novelists, stage performers and storytellers, were counted among the common folk, those who, according to an edict of the bakufu, were not allowed the use of calendars or maps. Any news of unrest or natural disasters in other parts of the country was also prohibited to them. All for fear that they may leave a negative record of the times for future generations to judge the Shogunate.
Contact with foreigners was forbidden. Selling artefacts and artworks to foreigners was forbidden. Even being saved by foreigners, as some drowning fishermen discovered, was forbidden and punishable by death. “Red-haired barbarians,” also known as the Dutch, were trying to gain entry into Japan but thus far they had been kept at bay by its autocratic rulers. But other “barbarians,” the British and the Americans, were also trying the same and it was only a matter of time before someone succeeded.
Change was coming to the ancient city, but it wasn’t there just yet. Certainly not in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district where Oei spent a lot of time. She first came as a child, carried through the streets on her father’s shoulders. He mingled with his friends, conducted business and met a 15-year-old courtesan whom he could not afford. Later, as she grows older, Oei visits the district by herself, becomes best friends with the said courtesan and often stays overnight in the brothel.
She grows up in streets thronged with pimps, storytellers and tattoo artists. And stray cats. And food stalls where she slurps soba noodles and partakes of grilled unagi, tofu broiled in brown sugar, or her favourite, eggplant in sauce. Thanks to Govier’s immaculate research and amazingly detailed descriptions the reader feels as if she can almost smell the fumes and hear the noises of the busy pleasure district.
By visiting Edo’s theatres and sake houses with her lover Oei appears to be living her life to the fullest. But these are the only bits of life she is able to wrangle for herself. In her art she remains an obedient daughter, loyalty-bound to her selfish father. He was also an immoral one it turns out, who used his daughters’ young bodies for his shunga prints.
Although Oei rebels against society in many ways, she never stands up to her father. Not even when he is long dead and the Dutchman whom she thought she loved returns to inquire about Hokusai’s remaining paintings. “I could have said, ‘Dr von Siebold — Philipp — my father’s work is my work. It has been so for a long time. In fact, as long ago as when you bought your Promenading Courtesan, I was the painter’.”
But she does not speak up. “Why did I pass up this chance to save myself? From simple embarrassment? From long habit of being a ghost? Had I developed a preference for being a ghost?” Or had she been conditioned so deeply by her upbringing that even when she is finally provide the opportunity to claim her rightful status in the art world she is unable to do it? Can the daughter ever overcome her father’s belittling comments about her talent?
The Printmaker’s Daughter is a spellbinding tale about a fascinating woman who lived in a terrible time in history.
The Printmaker’s Daughter
By Katherine Govier
497pp. Price not mentioned