Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn
Hearn follows the convention with which some readers might be familiar of taking a boy with an unusual heritage, then having him re-discover it and face his destiny. Sixteen-year-old Takeo is descended from the Tribe, a collection of families with hereditary super-ninja skills — preternatural senses and strength and agility, the ability to appear to be somewhere or someone else, and even to become effectively invisible by making it so that others just don’t notice you. Because of these skills, the Tribe are greatly in demand among the feudal lords as assassins and bodyguards. They tend to stay out of politics and are generally left alone.
All this is news to Takeo because his father turned his back on the Tribe and joined the Hidden, a weakly Christian-like pacifist sect of bamboo-huggers. The Hidden are oft reviled and persecuted, and on page 3 Takeo’s village is wiped out and his family murdered by the evil land-grabbing Lord Iida Sadamu. Takeo, the sole survivor, flees and is rescued by the noble Lord Otori Shigeru. By now it’s page 8 and the fun is only just beginning. Eventually, of course, Takeo will return to confront Iida.
Hearn gets around the formula by throwing plot-driven obstacles at every one of its elements. Otori can give his protection to Takeo –the boy is eventually adopted as his son — but he is essentially powerless in the scheme of things. His uncles run the Otori clan, not him, and they are in cahoots with Iida. They don’t even need him. Politics are in the air, and Otori can’t get out of a marriage arranged by Iida even though he knows he is walking into the lion’s den. Otori must gamble everything on Takeo assassinating Iida before Iida assassinates him, and Takeo is only too willing to oblige — but suddenly it’s not that simple.
The Tribe learn of Takeo’s existence, and they want him back. Meanwhile Iida doesn’t know Takeo is Tribe, but he strongly suspects he is the Hidden boy who fled the village that fateful day. Either way, he wants Takeo dead. These and other complications all arise at exactly the right times to bugger things up for everyone. And Hearn keeps doing this. The plot is proceeding nicely towards a logical conclusion, until she takes some matter that arises naturally from the story so far and feeds it back in, thus sending the plot in a completely new direction towards another apparently obvious conclusion, until … and so on.
Iida has installed a nightingale floor in his apartments — a wooden floor constructed so that it cannot be walked across quietly. Otori installs such a floor in his own apartments so that Takeo can practice walking across it. We can guess from the title that eventually he will cross that floor to seek out Iida, and indeed he does — but what he finds when he gets there, and the circumstances of his doing it, are quite different from what he and we were expecting. By the end of the book, the death of Iida is about the only element that still satisfies the expected formula. Everything else is new. There can be no going back, only forwards.
Parallel to Takeo’s story is the story of fifteen-year-old Lady Kaede, the daughter of a noble family subservient to Iida who has spent her entire life as a hostage and a marriage pawn. She also has an unfortunate reputation as a black widow: men connected with her tend to die. By decree of Iida she becomes Otori’s intended bride and the ward of his true love: like Takeo, who is the object of so many different interests, friendly and otherwise, her world is torn by conflicting loyalties and she is on the receiving end of much attention from people all with their own agendas. Love at first sight is usually a convenient and pat way out of getting two characters together, but by the time she and Takeo meet, it is only natural that these two bruised individuals, old beyond their years, should fall for one another.
This isn’t a novel for children — I would say at least mid-teens on. Readers need to understand why Otori can’t just marry his true love and be damned; why Takeo can’t just ninja his way into Iida’s bedroom and kill him. The book assumes a passing familiarity with the concepts of love and desire; the fine line between sexual love and lust; the aching loneliness that simple sex won’t cure; the tragedy of requited love that cannot be consummated. If these don’t mean something to the reader then the story won’t make sense. Takeo is already sexually experienced and there is even a throwaway line to his Hidden days about having satisfied his desires with boys as well as girls. Sex in this book is matter of fact and straightforward, and happens between the end of one paragraph and the start of the next. The concept of an age of consent, a legal nicety in our society, is meaningless in this kind of world, but sniggering teenagers won’t be reading this book for a vicarious lay.
In fact, the author wasn’t thinking of children at all. Hearn is in fact Gillian Rubinstein, an Australian writer of children’s books and plays: she chose a pseudonym so that her first “adult” novel would not be judged in the same mould as her juvenile work. School Library Journal acclaimed the book as “Best Adult Book for High School Readers, 2002”, which about sums it up.
You can easily picture the world of this novel as medieval Japan at some unspecified date. However, the author’s note at the end says that it isn’t; but then, neither is it a fantasy world that is “just like” medieval Japan. It’s a world that just is. It doesn’t need a name. Hearn has apparently come in for some flak on this, the premise being why have an imaginary medieval Japan that is exactly like the real one, when you could just have the real one? The answer of course is that an imaginary Japan gives her more flexibility. In the real Japan there would be no Hidden and no Tribe, just done-to-death ninjas, and here her geography can be conveniently moulded to make the conquering army of Iida’s archenemy turn up at just the right moment at the end.
I spent a lot of time trying to work out why and how the book is so effortlessly Japanese. It’s not just the names and the culture. The title and the cover and calligraphy are obviously meant to inspire Japanese thoughts, so maybe the reader will be subconsciously cued even before turning to page 1, line 1, but the writing itself has the elegance and simplicity of a tea ceremony. It’s not the bombastic, in your face Nipponism of James Clavell’s Shogun. The first two pages describe Takeo’s early life among the Hidden, in the bamboo groves and on the mountain slopes, and such is the precision of Hearn’s choice of words that you are there. It’s all the cueing you need to take you effortlessly into the story.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that Iida and the other baddies are bad because they’re bad, with little subtlety or background. It’s remedied by the more ambivalent characters that Hearn can do: Otori and Takeo could both so easily choose to be bad if they wanted; Takeo’s Tribe mentor Kenji is an old friend of Otori, but his loyalty is above all to the Tribe and if that means betraying Otori, so be it. (Hearn herself says: “Iida Sadamu and Otori Shigeru are from the same class and background. Iida has been corrupted by power, whereas Shigeru is compassionate by nature but essentially they are the same.”) Conversely to Iida, Kaede is good because she’s good; but she is also a strong female character who strains against the pressures of the society she lives in, while having to give in because that’s how things are. She stands up for herself on two key occasions, and that is all that is really needed.
I was strangely disappointed to see that there are two more intended books in the series. Takeo has changed so much by the end of the book that I thought his story was nicely complete. He’s now Lord Otori himself, but due to his Tribe commitments he can’t take up the post. He and Kaede are briefly together, then torn apart, but that’s the nature of tragedy: how much would Romeo & Juliet be diminished with a sequel? Across the Nightingale Floor deserves to be more than just “Book 1 of the Tales of the Otori”. But Hearn says the story “seemed to fall naturally into three parts”, so clearly there’s more to come. Perhaps I should have more faith in Hearn’s abilities: she got us this far, after all, and what a ride it was.