Riverhead Books, 2006
Review by GA. A. Banks-Martin
Tea and Self- Reliance
Until the Victorian Age lessons in the art of Japanese tea ceremony, were afforded only men. That changed when Yukako Yen, took advantage of social change to amend the course of study for girls enrolled in Kyoto’s schools, to include training in the tea ceremony. Now lessons are offered to women all over the world. Ellis Avery studied the art for five years and drew upon that experience and her knowledge of Yukako Yen to create Yukako Shin, one of the primary characters of her novel The Teahouse Fire.
Like Yen, Shin saves the art of tea ceremony. However, she must overcome the disappointment of being married to a man who abandons her and the decline the Shin family. By gaining the trust of the new Japanese leadership she becomes an advocate for women’s education opening her home to girls who want training, many of whom come from wealthy families: “Baron Sono, who was amassing a second fortune selling Japanese antiques to Western art museums, sent Tsuko, his large-eyed girl. And Advisor Kato, with much clearing of his throat, came to ask if Miss Mariko could continue her studies with Yukako as a boarding student. He was till pushing for his electric stage to go smoothly and needed all the support he could rally.”
The following passage also underscores the novel’s over-all message of self-reliance which is put forth by Aurelia on the first page of the book: “When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”
Thus from the beginning the story is about changing and recreating self. For Aurelia this means taking in as much as possible from an environment which is supportive only when she is performing the duties of servant: dressing Yuako, and accompanying her on outings. Otherwise she has no position — except that of a person so vile she must not even bathe in the community bath, as she is told by a women named Hazu: “Look. If you ever-ever-get into the bath her again-she began. I wondered what the end of her threat would be. Was she threatening to break my kneecaps if I dirtied her water? -we will have to drain the water, scrub down the basin, and start over.”
At this moment of this dialogue, Aurelia, realizing her situation, takes a translating job — a move inspired by Yuako whose first lessons were given, without her father’s permission, to a geisha. Most importantly, when dismissed from the Shin household, Aurelia will not leave, saying, you gave Aki a dowry for the nuns, I want a dowry, showing that Yuako has also, taught her servant to rely on her self.