Skip to main content

Buy This Book: The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

The Commoner: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries)There are few worlds as shrouded in mystery as that of Japan’s imperial family. It is generally thought of as cloistered, as beautiful and exotic but few real details regarding the day-to-day lives of the ruling monarchy are known. That is what makes The Commoner, John Burnham Schwarzt’s fourth, wonderfully-researched novel, so fascinating. We are led into that very private world by Haruko, a commoner from a well-placed Japanese family, who in 1959 marries the crown prince and afterward very nearly disappears from public view. It is through her soft but completely compelling voice that we learn of the hardships of that life--think bird in a gilded cage. Think Cinderella without the godmother and without the opportunity to flee. For one, Haruko is cruelly separated from her parents and friends. Not only are they not permitted to attend her wedding as other than members of the crowd of spectators that clog the streets on the day of the ceremony, but after, it is almost as if she is dead to them. In a real sense, as the weeks pass, she becomes dead to herself. She is fed and clothed by ladies-in-waiting who take their orders from the crown prince’s mother whom you might describe as the mother-in-law from hell. But she is merely acting from the requirements of her position, a centuries old tradition of obligation, of subservience in a society that reveres its male leaders to the point of idolatry and worship. In fact, it would appear that a woman’s presence is only useful for providing an heir to the monarchy, a male heir.


Imagine it, you cannot speak your mind. You cannot go out of doors or run to the market or have coffee with your mom and dad. As for a girl’s night out, forget it. Your world is full of cannots. Even speaking openly to your husband can be fraught with danger. Haruko finally fulfills her obligation, producing the requisite male heir only to be parted from him. The child is given into the hands of others who are better qualified to care for him. Haruko loses what little happiness was left to her. She is so beaten down, she loses her voice. She doesn’t speak. Not for weeks and weeks. This time is poignantly rendered in language that holds such pathos and grace, your heart aches for her. There is only one possibility for her emotional survival and that is for her to accept her fate, which she eventually does with quiet dignity. And her son grows into a man. But when he then weds a rising star in the foreign ministry--yet another commoner--the consequences are tragic and Haruko’s response is as courageous as it is astonishing. You want to stand and applaud. It is here that the story gains an urgency that keeps pace until the very end. The Commoner is a rare and captivating look into a little-known world and an altogether gorgeous and engrossing read.

For more about the author visit John Burnham Schwartz's website.

Comments

Wow. This sounds like a wonderful novel. Great review!
Jeanna Thornton said…
Yep, my kind of book! thanks for the post!

Popular posts from this blog

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": Did you love it or hate it?

Earlier this week, Colleen and I went to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", the extraordinary movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved it. Colleen not s'much. (I was sitting there choked in tears at the end of the three hour film, so I only vaguely remember her saying something about "watching paint dry.") I want to see it again, so I'm trying to get the Gare Bear to go with me this weekend, but I won't be surprised if he reacts the same way Colleen did. The movie is long. And odd. It requires patience and a complete suspension of disbelief that modern audiences simply aren't trained for, so you've got to be in the right mood for it. The same is true of the short story, though the story and script have very little in common -- at least superficially. The story is very Fitzgerald (though it's not an example of his best writing, IMHO), and the setting -- Baltimore during the industrial revolution, Spanish Americ

APATHY AND OTHER SMALL VICTORIES by Paul Neilan is only good if you enjoy things like laughter

The only thing Shane cares about is leaving. Usually on a Greyhound bus, right before his life falls apart again. Just like he planned. But this time it's complicated: there's a sadistic corporate climber who thinks she's his girlfriend, a rent-subsidized affair with his landlord's wife, and the bizarrely appealing deaf assistant to Shane's cosmically unstable dentist. When one of the women is murdered, and Shane is the only suspect who doesn't care enough to act like he didn't do it, the question becomes just how he'll clear the good name he never had and doesn't particularly want: his own.