The Ginger Tree
Title: The Ginger Tree
Author: Oswald Wynd
ISBN: 0 907871 03 8
In January 1903, Mary Mackenzie leaves her native Scotland to marry an English military attaché posted to Peking. In this story, which is told through letters, first person prose and diary entries, we see more than forty years of East-West relationships and the development of modern Japan first through the eyes of this very young and naive girl and, then, gradually though the eyes of the seasoned and successful stranger in a strange land whom she becomes.
Part historical fiction, part social commentary, part meandering love story, this is a remarkable book which details periods of immense global change and suffering from a single woman’s perspective. From the outset it becomes apparent that Mary’s life is never going to be easy in the Far East. The death of her travelling companion on the outgoing voyage to China sets the tone of the book, and in fact her life, and over the next forty or so years we follow Mary’s life as everything from illicit love affairs with Japanese noble men, kidnapped children, earthquakes, illness and the complexities of quotidian live in Tokyo are experienced and explored with brutal honesty and compassion.
This book covers a lot of ground but has a little bit of something to please almost every reader; forbidden romance, mystery, a sweeping panorama of history, exotic backgrounds and a strong female protagonist who stoically accepts her fate. In fact, it is her acceptance of the life she has made for herself and the determination to succeed, no matter how much personal anguish its brings her that makes this book so powerful and, ultimately, rewarding.
However, this is not a definitive work on Japan. Clearly the author knows and, at least, respects Japan, but anyone reading this as a primer for modern day Japan will be somewhat disappointed. It is more of a book to dip into sections on a daily basis and enjoy the crystalline prose and the complex interplay of world-events and personal tribulations which befall Mary then to read for top-tips on modern life in Japan. However, I did find myself reading sections of the book whilst on the subway in Japan recently and almost felt stunned to leave the train and realise that I had actually been reading about Japan’s brutal history and not experiencing it directly through Mary. Such is the evocative nature of the prose.
However enjoyable this book is, and there are sections, which are breathtakingly wonderful (the descriptions of the Dowager Empress of China, for example, are sublime) the question of how far we can trust the voice of Mary always arises. Although one can hope to trust Mary and everyone who has ever experienced a burning, passionate, unattainable love will feel akin to many of her thoughts, one only ever hears her side of the story. Many times I found myself wondering what the other main protagonists were feeling or thinking. However, this is a slight criticism for an otherwise delightful book.
Overall this is a powerfully moving book and contains ideas and images which will haunt the reader long after the book has been returned to the shelf. I imagine that I will read this book time and time again, making sure it is in my bag every time I head off to Japan.