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Across The Nightingale Floor is the first novel in Liann Hearn's "Tales of the Otori" Trilogy. It was first published in 2002. It is set in a fictional feudal system and tells the story of a fifteen year old girl named Kaede and a sixteen year old boy called Tomasu. Tomasu is a member of The Hidden and when he returns from time in the mountains he discovers that his family has been murdered. Hearn began to write the book after hearing the opening sentences of the book in her head in the voice of Takeo. She was able to easily picture the four main characters due largely in part from the inspiration drawn from her surroundings; at the time she was in Akiyoshidal International Arts Village, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The views around her gave rise to the images described in the book; it was a damp and humid September day, quiet except for the occasional jumping of fish.
Hearn had long been captivated by Japanese culture but penned this novel after fully immersing herself in it at a writer's retreat. The attendees visited Samurai houses, made several visits to the mystical castle of the Choshu clan and wandered through rice fields in order to picture the lives that her characters would have been living five hundred years ago. She had also long been interested in feudalism and so decided that she would construct a fictional "fantasy" feudal system where her characters would live. As in much Japanese literature, what is unsaid is as important as what is said. There are no traditional villains but a series of antagonists and heroes who are forced to remain silent in the face of societal restraint that cripples the intensity of their joy of life and their emotions.
Hearn decided to write a trilogy as she neared the end of this first novel because she realized there were still many untold stories, and so she wrote the entire trilogy in one go between September 1999 and April 2001. She believes that the lengthy work fell naturally into three segments without her needing to edit her work.
The Tales of the Otori trilogy has been published in thirty six countries and received the Book of the Year award in Germany in 2004.
Across the Nightingale Floor
by Lian Hearn
336pp, Macmillan, £12.99
Our own medieval feudal system was a relatively simple affair. Each stratum of society owed allegiance to the one above it, the king was at the top of the heap and a single religion governed all.
The feudal society created by Lian Hearn is labyrinthine. Every life is owned by another, but may be owed elsewhere. Two clans invade and annex each other's territory, a third secures itself by arranged marriages and an elaborate system of hostages. One such hostage is Kaede; half of her 15 years have been spent in pawn and now she is to be traded in marriage to Lord Shigeru of the Otori clan, who has adopted a young man, Takeo, sole survivor of a massacre in a hill village prosecuted by Lido of the Tohan clan. Halfway through the novel their stories converge and it becomes clear that in this intricately structured society there is no such thing as self-determination.
On one level this is a thrilling tale of love, violence, loyalty and betrayal, fast-moving, set in a far-away country long ago, where people and places have exotic names. Children are well-accustomed to this mode; they will not feel short-changed. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the nomenclature will identify the setting more precisely. Surely these are samurai we are reading about, shoguns and ninjas. The village shrines are Shintoist, the enlightened one is the Buddha. The figure of Kurosawa's Sanjuro seems to stalk the pages, nonchalantly lopping off a head or an arm in passing. Isn't that a Hokusai landscape in the background?
Well, not necessarily. The names are certainly Japanese but Japan is never named. Much is left to conjecture and the fun is in picking up the clues. Takeo comes from a persecuted minority sect known as the Hidden, evidently Christians in a land of Buddhism and Shinto, but the faith that has taught him never to take life is gainsaid by his parentage which commits him to the ways of the Tribe, a shadowy network whose inherited talents have made them professional assassins. His adoptive father has named him as heir, but he is not free to choose where his destiny and his loyalty lie. When his skill and courage have administered just vengeance and won him the woman he loves, the Tribe asserts prior claims on him and he cannot deny them.
The "Nightingale Floor" that must be crossed is in a warlord's castle, constructed so that any footfall upon it will cause it to sing a warning. One of Takeo's inherent gifts is supernormal hearing; he can learn the song of the floor and approach his enemy in silence. He can delude the sight of others - this is very much a realm of the senses where people inhabit polar extremes of violence and aesthetics, plum blossom by moonlight, torture and decapitation. The extremes meet in Takeo, artist and murderer, who tenderly frees a moth from a candle flame but kills a man without hesitation.
A staple figure of genre fiction is the maverick, the one who transgresses. These people do not transgress or respect a transgressor. They are not like us because they do not think like us. The reader in our egocentric society is still adjusting to this austere rigidity when the book ends - but there are two more to come. I wonder what the Japanese will make of it.
· Jan Mark's Heathrow Nights is published by Hodder.