The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging, as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world.

This quote comes from an episode in Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles. It could equally describe the way Mark Henshaw’s narrative is constructed.  Each chapter builds on the preceding one, enabling the story to unfold one layer at a time and bring with it ever-deepening insights and fresh revelations.

thesnowkimonoThe novel opens in Paris in 1989. Retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers, where he once served as an intelligence officer. She claims to be his daughter. Back home in his apartment he finds a stranger waiting for him – Tadashi Omura, a former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan who bears a strong resemblance to the Emperor Hirohito. Omura begins to relate the story of his own lost daughter Fumiko and his friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda. As the story of a fractured friendship, lost lovers and orphaned children unfolds, Jovert cannot help reflect on the parallels with his own life which, like Ikeda’s, is built on a lie.

Each strand of the narrative pivots between various characters and locations, in France, Japan and Algeria. It’s written in a slightly off-beat enigmatic style which keeps readers uncertain how everything fits together and how it will all end. Many of the tales use beautiful evocative imagery.

Behind me, the mountain peaks blaze like white teeth in the first rays of the sun. Darkness seeps back into the earth. The grey-tiled rooftops of the village, clustered together like sleeping cattle, begin to surface.

or in another scene:

Banks of cloud the colour of egg white hung low and flat on the horizon.

The Snow Kimono is a meditation on love, loss and betrayal but one whose meaning becomes evident only in stages. Omura counsels Jovert early on in their relationship that if he wants to understand, then he needs to change his perspective. “In Japan we have a saying. If you want to see your life, you have to see it through the eyes of another. But what if what you see is not what you want to know.” Jovert, reminiscing about his career comes to appreciate that the techniques he used in his career would not be sufficient to reveal the truth about life “… life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”

The non-linear structure and the enigmatic nature of the plot alone would make The Snow Kimono a fascinating novel but add the haunting, fluid, lyrical style and the result is the most remarkable novel I’ve read all year. From the first page I was enthralled. By the time I got to the last page I wanted to start all over again to try, like Jovert, to put all those pieces together.

End Notes

Mark Henshaw was born in Canberra, Australia. He published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago to huge critical acclaim. Since then he’s published detective novels under the pen-name of J.M.Calder but under his own name, nothing. Why the long silence? An  interview in Sydney Morning Herald may provide the answer. 

The Snow Kimono is published by Text Publishing. They took on the publication after  32 other publishers turned it down. The Snow Kimono went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2015.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 22, 2015, in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Brief comment re JM Calder first – it’s a collaborative name for him and John Clanchy.

    I’ve finished the book now and written my review, though I’ve part drafted a follow up post because there are so many angles from which to view this book. I could write a really long single review but besides that turning blog readers off I think, it’s also hard to keep the post focused if it goes off on too many tangents.

    I loved the language – your quotes give a great sense of the beauty of his descriptions. I loved the tone – I really like books with that melancholic, foreshadowing sort of tone. I’m not sure why but I do. And I love its discussion of memory and how un-fixed it is.

    (And would you believe, I saw the author at an exhibition opening this evening. I was so tempted to go up to him and say something, but the opportunity didn’t arise. I’m only semi-brave in situations like that! I have spoken to authors before but not when surrounded by other people in tight spaces!)

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    • I didn’t know about the collaboration so thanks for that info. Did you kick yourself afterwards for not having gone and spoken to him? I know I would have struggled to find anything to say that he hadn’t heard probably a zillion times before but then of course after the moment had passed I would have conjured up all sorts of erudite comments …

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      • Yes, that’s the issue, thinking of something to say that wasn’t just fawning. But one comment I had thought of making was how different readers fosuc on quite different aspects of the book. I think that would have been not particularly erudite but not boring either. I kicked myself a little … I was still considering going. Up to home when I noticed he’d gone!

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        • That would have been a good question. I think I would like to know how he managed to make the narrative so authentically Japanese when he’d never lived there

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        • Yes … He was curator of Prints and Drawings at the NGA here, which includes a lot of Japanese prints. He must have imbued through this and elsewhere a real Japanese aesthetic. I find it fascinating that he decided to do this without going there, though I’m not one who believes authors mystery have been to places they write about.

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  2. ooh, this sounds really good! I believe it must go on my TBR list!

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  3. I haven’t read this review Karen as I’m in the final throes of reading the book right now. My reading group is to discuss this on Tuesday. I went to the launch last year and have a signed copy. I’ll come back and read the review in the next couple of days when I’ve finished he book and drafted my own review.

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  4. I put this book down during our recent move and haven’t got back into it since. I should see if I can find where I put it! Thanks for the reminder – I was enjoying it 🙂

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  5. Lovely review! I have this somewhere in my TBR pile and must dig it out.

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