There will be many UK readers who will remember Lesley Downer not for her books, although there have been many, but for her enlightening and absorbing TV series in which she introduced Japan to British viewers. It was the first programme of its kind and I don’t think it has been rivalled since for its coverage of that enigmatic country.
Japan is now accessible to every traveller and it is indeed unique, with a thoroughly contemporary business and industry sector throwing into contrast its traditions and its rich cultural heritage. To understand the Japanese we have to appreciate their journey and there can be few authors better equipped to shepherd us through the ages than Lesley Downer, who has lived in Japan for a total of 15 years.
The title ‘The Last Concubine’ might lead a bookshelf browser to believe that this novel will be titillating and erotic, but it is more a well-researched volume with a romantic thread. It’s a balanced book that has Lesley skilfully painting an exotic backdrop behind the dramas of a changing world. It’s evident that she knows her subject but this is more an adventure than a dry history book.
The tale starts in rural Japan in 1861 but after a chapter or two we become aware that there is a mystery that began a decade before. Lesley’s characters might be fictional but she poses them in historic reality. We learn about the Samurai concept of honour, palace intrigue, and Japanese mid-century politics, but without the need to plough through academic worthy works. We find people who have human fragilities and strengths but who are bound by codes of conduct that to us seem other-worldly.
A very young concubine has her life torn apart by war and the realisation that even she is not who she thought she was. Yes, there are romantic encounters but this is a book that will appeal to anyone looking for a ‘good read’ rather than some light ‘chick lit’, which this definitely is not. The Last Concubine keeps us turning pages right up to the last.
This was Lesley Downer’s first novel and I am looking forward to reading more.
The Last Concubine
Author: Lesley Downer
Published by: Corgi
Book review by Chrissie Walker © 2018