Two Minute Review: The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier

Saturday, March 10, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 494 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: November 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating:  3/5 for the 300 pages I completed

The legendary printmaker Hokusai created Japan’s best-known image, The Great Wave—but the story of his daughter Oei comes to life for the first time in this vivid historical novel, combining scholarly detective work and a daring narrative that shines fresh light on issues of authorship, duty, and the tender and inscrutable bond between a father and daughter.

Recounting the story of her life, Oei plunges us into the colorful world of 19th-century Edo, in which courtesans rub shoulders with poets, artists consort with warriors, and the arts flourish in an unprecedented moment of creative foment—all despite a repressive political regime. Oei and Hokusai live amongst actors, novelists, tattoo artists, and prostitutes, evading the Shogunate's spies. Her father journeys to gather visual references for his evolving masterpiece, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Wielding her brush, Oei rejects the typical pursuit of domesticity in favor of dedication to the arts. She defies all expectations of womanhood. All but one—a dutiful daughter to the last, she will obey the will of her eccentric father, the man who created her and who, ultimately, will rob her of her future.

This is less a review, even a short one, than an exercise to vanquish the guilt I have for not being able to finish this novel. I rarely, rarely give in and DNF a historical novel: my curiousity to see how things work out and my high threshold for frippery description usually overpowers my good sense. By all means, I wanted to love and should have loved this journey into 1800s Edo Japan, but this was most definitely not the novel I thought I was getting. Some readers will be enchanted by Govier's visually striking version of the isolationist country, but I wasn't diverted or engrossed by Oei and the Old Man's journey through the years of her life. I kept waiting for something, anything, to happen in those hard-fought 300 pages of reading but.... nothing of note did and I had to throw in the towel.

My first major complaint about The Printmaker's Daughter and one that persisted for most of the pages I managed to conclude: the accent/speech patterns used for the courteans of the Corner Tamaya. A confusing overuse of the letter 'z' for pluralization or to show ownership was the first problem I caught on to ("She'z so, like, stiff. She'z like a lady!") but it was sadly also far from the last. Why do these 1800's whores speak like 1990's California valleygirls? Phrases and words like "pulleeez" "chi-yuld" and "it'z so noi-zy!" is not how women of the time expressed themselves so it's a jarring speech pattern for the author to have them use - and somewhat condescending as well. Why does the word "like" pop up every three words in the conversation of the courtesans? Given that young Oei spends quite a chunk of the beginning of the novel among the bordellos with her father, it's a reoccuring and distracting issue.   

Oei herself isn't too bad of a protagonist, though she's not fully fleshed out by the time I closed the cover for the final time. I actually really enjoyed reading about the complicated but loving relationship between Oei and her famous father; she clearly values his opinion and work more than her own life. Even the title of the novel reinforces how clearly Oei defines herself by the terms of her father.  Govier seems to have largely based her Hokusai on the real man, easily enfolding actual facts about the main into the narrative easily and often. I liked the characters, but I didn't closely identif with any, root for any or hate any. They were just mostly there...doing nothing for 300 pages. The ultra-weird narrative shifts, from two hundred fifty pages of first-person perspective to a third-person view and back again to first is just clunky and weird. A more streamlined transition between views would help the whiplash of flipping back and forth so much. 

This was just not for me, though I can easily see others overlooking what I could not and enjoying this far more/ actually completing the entire 500-page length.  I just don't want to muscle through a novel only to write a tepid review after - by no means is this even close to the worst I have read this year. I just lacked the desire to pursue another 200 pages of anachronistic accents and weird POV shifts with nothing happening in between to break up the monotony.

The cover for the editions printed as The Ghost Brush:


  1. Very nice review, especially for a two-minute review! I was pretty cool on this one -- as time went by I'm less enamored of it -- and this was very nearly a DNF for me.

  2. Your review actually kept me going as far as I did - hoping it would grab me eventually. Oh well. I want to read more historical fic set in Japan, but this just wasn't for me :(

    1. I browsed my GoodReads to see if I've read anything else set in Japan, and so far, nada. Which is too bad -- I really enjoy histfic in non-traditional locales so I want to support novels that aren't set in Western Europe.

    2. Exactly. I enjoy hist. fic from all over but England/France/Italy gets old after a while. The only other Japanese hist. fuc-ish book I have read is Memoirs of a Geisha.... and.. yeh. Not specatacular. The search goes on. Maybe The Far Side of the Sky will turn out good.


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