Review

Enticing twists and turns on a widow's journey to deliver carp

FICTION

THE OFFICE OF GARDENS AND PONDS

By Didier Decoin, translated by Euan Cameron

Quercus Publishing/Paperback/ 308 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

A story about a woman transporting carp across Japan may not sound intriguing initially, but it turns out to be a most riveting and melancholic tale.

All is possible in the hands of talented French screenwriter and writer Didier Decoin, 74, who has adapted scripts for television, including Les Miserables (2000) and The Count Of Monte Cristo (1999).

This book, first published in 2017, was translated from French to English this year by Euan Cameron, who has retained Decoin's elegant prose.

The story, set in 12th century Japan, follows Miyuki Amakusa, a woman in her 20s who is saddled with grief when her fisherman husband, Katsuro Nakamura, drowns in the Kusagawa River.

That he should die in the same river where he makes his livelihood is a cruel irony to his wife, who must now undertake the physically burdensome task of transporting eight carp to the Imperial City in Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto).

The journey is fraught with danger for a solo female traveller in rural Japan, where ronin and bandits run amok.

Having never set foot outside her mountainside village of Shimae, Miyuki has no inkling of what to expect, but sets out anyway to take the carp that Katsuro caught to the Office of Gardens and Ponds, which is under the directorship of the vain Nagusa Watanabe.

That Watanabe considers drawing his eyebrows jade green in an attempt to be noticed at court says a lot about his fixation on status and beauty.

Decoin has crafted a tale with enough twists and turns to entice the reader to keep reading.

If the first half of Miyuki's journey is one of survival - narrowly missing a pirate attack at the inn she was spending the night in and keeping her distance and carp from over-friendly male travellers - the second half of her trip takes a surprising turn into an exploration of pride and vanity.

After she sets foot on imperial grounds, the novel embarks on an unexpected pursuit of smells. Watanabe is tasked by the Emperor to come up with the specific fragrance of a girl who has lingered at the top of a bridge after walking through a cloud of mist.

No amount of the finest incense meets the grade until Watanabe meets Miyuki, whom he exclaims "exhales life from all the orifices of her body". This is despite her not having washed off the grime and dirt of her travels, her "reek of filth... a delicate fragrance that no incense could convey" .

"But the attractive or fetid smell that is given off never reflects the reality of a person," explains Watanabe to his assistant, who fails to see Miyuki's worth as he does.

Even so, Watanabe sees Miyuki only as a means to his goal and his indifference to Miyuki's exhaustion and grief is depressing, especially when Decoin articulates her wretched anxiety at the inevitable parting with the carp caught by Katsuro, which is akin to a second parting from her late husband.

Many times along her journey, her thoughts drift to happier days, ultimately returning to the sad reality that he is no longer around.

She recalls the time Katsuro tells her the reason for the anxious look in his eyes.

"Anxious for you, of course," he says. "Everything that can happen between morning and evening to someone you love."

If you like this, read: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (Harperone, 2001, $23.96, Books Kinokuniya). First published in 1961 under a pseudonym, this is a collection of the writer's reflections on life after the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, and the difficulty he faces in accepting her death.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2019, with the headline 'Enticing twists and turns on a widow's journey to deliver carp'. Print Edition | Subscribe