Lebra, Joyce. The Scent of Sake. Avon, 2009. ISBN 978-0061662379 366 pp. $13.99
Nineteen year old Rie, like all good Japanese girls of 1825, submits to the marriage her prosperous parents arrange for her, hoping she will come to love her husband, who is adopted into her family’s brewing business. Rei demonstrates a shrewd head for business, and in a time when women are taught to subjugate themselves, she finds subversive ways to make her voice heard as she moves towards her goal of making White Tiger the number one brewery in Kobe, in spite of fire, shipwreck, and betrayal.
Lebra’s writing is disappointingly straightforward. An historical novel must contain complete and vivid worldbuilding, and the author opts to TELL us of time’s passing as she builds the story of this dynasty, rather than SHOW it. The pacing is very disjointed, with the narrative skipping forward days within one chapter, and years one chapter to chapter. The point of view slips several times, to Rie’s husband Jihei, and later to her husband’s son, Yoshi.
Thos familiar with Japanese history and culture may enjoy this novel more than those who are not; the author doesn’t define italicized Japanese terms in context, and doesn’t even bother to highlight other words, assuming, for example, that everyone knows what an obi is.
Clearly, Lebra has done her research; she has a handle on the Shinto religion, and describes traditions from ceremonies to the day-to-day running of a household very adequately, but the novel has a wooden feel to it, and it’s hard to pinpoint what’s missing.