Guy Vanderhaeghe’s works such as The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing have set the gold standard in Canadian historical fiction. The respected author mused recently about the challenge of letting readers know where history leaves off and whole cloth story begins:
“… There are many people who make the argument that there is very little distinction between history and fiction, because they are both authorial constructions. I do see a very great difference between the two.“History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt. It allows contemporary people to under what it was like in another time. The second argument I would make is that history, as it is often written, makes people think that history was predetermined, that no other outcome was possible. Historical fiction inserts the idea that individual choices matter.”(1)
Katherine Govier tackles this very dichotomy in her extensively researched and exquisitely crafted The Ghost Brush, and as such, helps to define that gold standard. She does that by vividly raising one individual from the footnotes of another individual’s historical record. It’s history turned to fiction, then provocatively and not improbably turned back into history – and it’s unforgettable.
Katsushika Hokusai was a revered, prolific Japanese painter and printmaker of the Edo period, when Japan was ruled by the Shogun military dictatorship. Hokusai worked hard and managed to comparatively thrive both personally and artistically during that largely repressive rule, producing an astonishing range of work from the late 1700s to mid 1800s. He is perhaps best known for the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes the iconic, still prescient image The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Hokusai was an astonishingly accomplished, innovative and brave artist and vibrant human being in his own right. However, Govier forges an even more captivating tale out from under Hokusai’s formidable shadow, that of the story of his equally if not possibly more gifted daughter, Oei, the titular presence of Govier’s singular novel.
Against the rich backdrop of 19th century metropolitan Edo, with its fascinating districts and social strata, Govier focuses on the thorny, symbiotic but ultimately loving collaboration and partnership between father and daughter. It becomes increasingly evident that Hokusai’s accomplishments reasonably and realistically exceed his age, health, lifestyle, abilities and inclinations, and there is confusion about who is signing what signature to various works. The fundamental mystery of Oei is whether or not she willingly subsumes her skills – her ghost brush – to the will of her brilliant, domineering father, to the constraints and expectations of Japanese society, or to her own ideas about achieving a perverse kind of freedom out of the spotlight. As one outsider to both the relationship and the social context observes, after meeting Oei:
Take Japanese women, for instance. The rare sophisticated woman ran a family inn or store. Others, earthier, were skilled in weaving or silk production. But even the most independent of them withered in the presence of a male relative. Women, he observed, had no social context of their own. They rarely appeared alone in public; it was positively Arab that way. Here was the greatest puzzle: there appeared to be no coercion. Women were willing partners in their own invisibility. Why was the Japanese woman so dependent, her very existence defined by obligation?
And yet, as seen today, why was the opposite evident, at least this once?
While the father-daughter relationship and collaboration is central to The Ghost Brush, Govier also introduces other relationships relative to Oei that to some extent crack the enigma and round her out as an intriguing but also believable character and singular woman. It’s not her relationships with other men – an off-kilter, brief marriage, various lovers – but Oei’s connection over the years to the feisty courtesan Shino that truly bring Oei to life, both setting her choices and perceived shortcomings in relief against a contrasting but equally strong female figure. Interestingly, the Oei/Shino relationship reminded this reader of another recent pairing of female/feminine characters offering each other both a counterpoint and counterbalancing support: the relationship of Wayne and Wallis in Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. Both Oei and Wayne exist in the shadows of strong father figures, struggle with their respective identities on one level or another, and find friendship, support and guidance from a figure who is sister and/or mother and/or full or partial alter ego.
Govier has acknowledged that she strove to use “fiction as restoration” to create Oei’s story. She has seamlessly blended her considerable research and a profound understanding to not only create a thoughtful and memorable story, but to subtly and firmly force a reconsideration of the original historical account.
As Vanderhaeghe points out, effective historical fiction posits that “individual choices matter”. In this case, the real Oei’s individual choices mattered as they affected her place in history and how it was interpreted and presented. Govier gives us the wonderful opportunity with The Ghost Brush to also make our own individual choices as readers in interpreting how just and accurate history was with Oei’s story and true accomplishments.
1. Guy Vanderhaeghe quoted in A Good Guy, by Allan Casey, in Quill & Quire, September 2011
Hokusai article in Wikipedia
Thank you to the author and to HarperCollins Canada for providing a supplementary copy of The Ghost Brush, by Katherine Govier that includes the afterword. I’m also grateful for my original copy of the trade paperback version of The Ghost Brush, acquired through the online Slave Lake Book Auction, generously donated by the author,