I was torn about reviewing The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier because I needed time to digest what I had read. When I began reading it, I thought it was pure fiction but I kept seeing names of Japanese artists I knew about. I did some research and discovered it was a fictionalized version of an actual woman’s life, the daughter of the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. For fans of historical fiction, Japanese art or Japanese history, this is remarkable novel.
Most people know Hokusai for his portrayals of Mount Fuji and his giant wave but do they know Oei’s equally amazing prints portraying Japanese women? Her signature is next to the book cover. One of her print studies of Japanese women is below.
“I am Oei. Katsushika Oei. Katsushika I take from the place where my father was born. Oei is a pun on how he calls me. It means, ‘Hey you!’ I have other names…He named himself for the North Star, and for the thunder god; he named himself the Old Man Mad About Painting; he has named and renamed himself twenty times. To me he’s just the Old Man.”
When she was born in the early 1800’s in Edo (now Tokyo), Japan, Oei’s father immediately claimed her. He told her mother that she could have their other daughters but this one he was claiming for himself. He took her everywhere with him, even as an infant and toddler. She grew up in his printmaking studio, learning from the very driven Hokusai, eventually working alongside of him, instructing his students, and doing her own artwork which he claimed as his. The picture below is Hokusai’s woodcut titled “Artists at Work.”
Japan in the early 19th century was not a kind place for any artist of any kind. Edicts were constantly made that prohibited more and more artistic expression. Men were arrested and killed as an example or were destroyed psychologically. There was a great fear by those in power that the written word or visual material would fall into the hands of foreigners that could be used by them to learn how to harm Japan. Still artists of all kinds flourished creatively, if not financially, by finding ways to get around the edicts. Poverty was a constant companion in the Hokusai household and studio, although many students came to learn from Hokusai and his daughter.
“..we didn’t fight with swords. We fought with words and pictures. Our pictures and our little storybooks cost pennies. But they had a strange power. They gave us news, gossip, celebrity, mementos. They celebrated the only pleasures we were allowed – Kabuki Theater, love affairs and the small indulgences for our bodies. The Tokugawa could not attack us directly. There were too many of us. Instead the enforcers attacked the messengers, our pictures; they called them decadent and tried to destroy them.”
Oei and Hokusai spent much of their time with the courtesans in and around the legal brothels of the Yoshiwara area in Edo. Oei craved companionship with the courtesans because she had only her father but no female influences in her life who weren’t traditional. Oei was anything but traditional. Her father taught her how to be an artist but the courtesans taught her how to care for herself and how to be a girl instead of a wild child. Through her eyes we see the conditions in which courtesans really lived and how they were treated by the public and the owners of the houses where they lived and worked. If you read Memoirs of a Geisha, this aspect of The Printmaker’s Daughter will be fascinating.
The early 1800’s were not easy for women anywhere, and that is true for women in Japan as well. Women were objects to be owned, used and discarded. It was not unlawful for a man to kill his wife or sell her to a brothel. The Printmaker’s Daughter brings those conditions to life with stark reality.
Oei is an amazingly strong and independent woman who perseveres in finding her own way of living inside and outside of the restrictions forced upon her by the society in which she lived. She made decisions knowing the consequences but also knowing they were the right ones for her. Eyes wide open; she chose to be true to who she was.
In Canada, The Printmaker’s Daughter is called The Ghost Brush. I believe that is an apt title for this novel since in Hokusai’s later years Oei was the ghost brush artist for many of the prints attributed to him. It’s a remarkable story, which Katherine Govier spent five years researching in depth, and that research is apparent on every page. The Printmaker’s Daughter is a novel to dive into, lose yourself in, and savor. Women have come so far but we must never forget what we’ve overcome. I’m happy that Oei’s story is being told.
This is the book’s website, where you’ll find even more information on the story behind this remarkable novel. Included on the site is a wonderful short video in which Katherine Govier talks about why she wrote this novel.
The Printmaker’s Daughter was released in the U.S. on November 22, 2011 (and is available in Canada as The Ghost Brush), so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button of your choice to go there to get it.
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