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Book Review: The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

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I almost gave up on The Teahouse Fire halfway through it. It’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true. Still, I refuse to give up on a book and so I continued. The writing in this novel is beautiful, though it bogs you down. You are immersed in Japanese culture and given glimpses into lives both fragile and hard that revolve around a life dedicated to tea.

Born in New York to a French mother, Aurelia travels to Japan, as a young girl after her mother dies, with her Uncle Charles on a missionary mission in 1866. Just as they arrive in their new home in the city of Miyako, which eventually becomes Kyoto, Aurelia leaves her Uncle behind in a burning house. She runs into the night, eventually taking refuge in a teahouse.

In the morning, Aurelia discovers the teahouse belongs to the Shin family and she is taken in as a servant and renamed Urako. Yukako, the Master Teacher’s daughter, takes Aurelia/Urako under her wing, and for the next 25 years, the two share joyful triumphs and bitter disappointments.

As Aurelia grows, she becomes more and more Urako. She slowly forgets she was anything other than Japanese and the memories of her mother fade. Her English and French, two languages she grew up knowing, lay dormant and eventually lead to her emotional freedom. The Westernization of Japan is interesting to watch through the eyes of a foreigner turned Japanese servant. The history of the tea ceremony and the act are woven into the lives of the characters. Everything in The Teahouse Fire comes down to who can serve and teach tea, and the struggles the characters face to do so.

At the start of each chapter, the year in which that chapter takes place is stated. Sometimes a chapter covered several years. The author, Ellis Avery, made a point of talking about birthdays and holidays to mark time. One of the problems I had with this book, though, was Aurelia/Urako’s aging as the story progressed. She went from being a young girl at the beginning of the book to a grown woman into her 30s by the end, but her inner voice didn’t change much. I was shocked in the later chapters when she mentioned a gray hair. It didn’t come across in the pages that she had aged enough to get gray hair.

Another thing I had a problem with was the scene between Aurelia and her uncle before she runs away. He molests her, not graphically and all the clothes are on, but it’s a single paragraph that could have been cut from the book and you never would have missed it. It felt as if it had been stuck in to add depth to the character. It wasn’t needed. Uncle Charles was creepy enough before that happened.

Aging and Uncle Charles aside, I enjoyed The Teahouse Fire. The wait is long, but when everything finally does pull together, it’s wonderful and worth all 465 paperback pages. The Teahouse Fire is not a book you can sit down and breeze through. You have to take the time to savor the words and the building tension as the characters live out the little dramas of life on the page.

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About Katie T. Buglet

  • hazeleyes

    “I liked it” is too strong a statement. Even “It was interesting” doesn’t quite fit.

    I loved THE SNOW FOX, but until I saw this review I had forgotten that I had read THE TEAHOUSE FIRE.

    Some of the book is very interesting. I especially liked learning more about Japanese culture, which is (was?) a different world. But gosh, the book is ‘kabukiesque’! You see it happening but there’s no emotional connection (because I am a westerner).

    Reading this book is a bit like a long slog up a slippery slope. I suppose it’s worth it but it was a long climb for a limited vista at the top.

    One thing I loved was the character development at the end – a wonderful surprise. I want to know more about those two girls!

  • Another great review. My stack of books to read is pretty tall, think I might have to pass on this for the time being.