How have so few people read this book? I will have to pimp it all over Goodreads now because Fudoki is simply lovely.
This book is two stories rolled into one. In 12th century Japan, Harueme, an elderly princess, sits down to write a story that's just itching to get out: of a cat who's turned into a woman and a warrior and has the adventures Harueme never had. Harueme's memoirs intertwine with the story of the cat, without real boundaries between the two. This might be best described as historical fiction, since the fantasy elements are all in the cat's tale and the cat probably doesn't exist, but there's enough ambiguity that it works well as historical fantasy too.
This was an unusual reading experience for me. I initially read the first few pages, decided it wasn't the thing for me at the moment, and set it aside, but then found myself thinking about it. And that's the way this book works. There's nothing flashy or in-your-face about it; it draws you in subtly, plays on your emotions without your realizing it, and you slowly come to realize just how good it is. I'm used to reading books through in a mad rush these days, but this is one that demands you slow down and read a little bit at a time. "Calming" is a good way to describe it.
The stories of both the princess and the cat are compelling, and the character development is quite good, especially with Harueme (the cat-woman is simpler, as cats are, and even in human form her personality resembles that of a cat). Harueme lives in a world of women, and her relationship with her attendant and best friend, Shigeko, is well-done. The writing is also good, and genuinely reads like the voice of an older woman who's learned a lot about life (rather than a younger author trying to sound wise and being trite instead). To quote an example that encapsulates Harueme's outlook on life, and made me smile (background: her uncle and cousin are upset about her rejection of a suitor):
"I knew they could not see me well through the screens, so I learned to slip a small notebook into my sleeve, to have something to read during these visits: if they had nothing useful to say, I saw little reason to attend carefully. I actually read all the way through the Diamond Sutra in this fashion, which I am sure did more for my soul than any remorse they might have hoped to engender."
Not flashy, but full of thought and humanity. And it also brings me to my last point, which is the setting. Johnson isn't Japanese, but you might not realize from the text; the book is clearly well-researched but the details stay in the background, subtly fleshing it out as needed. The setting feels three-dimensional, and never exoticized. The mythology is interesting and fits very well into the story; I knew I was hooked from the moment the cat encounters a dead woman's ghost trying to shake her body into wakefulness.
I'm not quite prepared to give 5 stars--maybe I need a little more flash, the kind of book that will bowl you over--but I am prepared to say that Fudoki is excellent. This is exactly the sort of thing I like--historical fantasy with a non-western setting, focusing on women and their relationships, and with cats
--but I think it will appeal to a wider audience too. Now on to Johnson's other book....