Book Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

NightingaleFirst published in 2002, Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori #1) by Lian Hearn is the second novel I’m reviewing for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I first read it in 2006, but for some unfathomable reason never did read the rest of the series. I must have been distracted by something, because I loved this book the first time — and I loved it the second time as well. This time I intend to keep going with the series.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a fantasy novel set in an imaginary world based on feudal Japan. Takeo is the central character, a boy of 16 raised in a remote mountain village, whose world falls apart when the village is attacked by Lord Iida Sadamu. From the beginning, when he escapes Iida’s sword, it is clear that Takeo has unique abilities. He is rescued (apparently coincidentally) by the passing Lord Otori Shigeru, who happens to have a personal vendetta against Iida himself. Shigeru adopts Takeo into the Otori clan and proceeds to have him educated as both a young man of the warrior class, and also a member of the ‘Tribe’, a mysterious group of assassins with supernatural abilities like Takeo’s. There follows a plot involving feuding clans, political scheming, secret love and plans for revenge. Interwoven with Takeo’s story is that of Kaede, a girl of the warrior class who is used as a hostage to ensure the ‘good behaviour’ of her father. She is treated like a pawn and bundled off to be married to Shigeru – only to fall in love with Takeo. The climax takes place in Lord Iida’s city, where everything unravels with tragic consequences. (Synopsis taken from my original post on the book.)

At heart it’s a simple story about revenge, duty, betrayal and forbidden love, exquisitely executed with writing that is both spare and elegant. I have heard others complain that the writing style is so simplistic as to be almost childish, but I completely disagree. In my view there’s barely a word out of place. It very much suits the Asian atmosphere that pervades the entire novel.

The author herself states: “In Japanese art and literature I am fascinated by the use of silence and asymmetry. I like the concept of ma: the space between that enables perception to occur. I wanted to see if I could use silence in writing. So the style is spare, elliptical and suggestive. What is not said is as important as what is stated.”

This book really taps into my emotions as well, and I’ve wept both times upon reading it. The climactic scenes unfold with the precision of a dance, with the screws of doom for one character tightened relentlessly as the betrayals stack up. We only really know the doomed character through Takeo, the protagonist, but it is the strength of the relationship between them that makes it so moving.

At the end of the novel, Takeo is forced to make a choice that will send him off on a journey of self-discovery… The next book in the series is Grass for his Pillow, followed by Brilliance of the Moon.

For the most part, I listened to the ABC Enterprises audio recording of Across the Nightingale Floor, read by Tamblyn Lord (Takeo’s sections) and Anna Steen (Kaede’s). However, I did read some parts in written form. I particularly enjoyed the audio recording, though, and I think it highlighted the beauty of the writing.

This is a trans-genre novel, spanning fantasy, historical fiction, literature, Young Adult… put simply, there’s something in it for everyone in my view. Highly recommended.

6 comments

  1. Love your write up and review of this book. It’s not one I would normally be drawn to yet now I am. I particularly like the quote from the author – it is exactly the kind of thing one of my characters in my other (stalled) novel is after as he tries to teach something to the main protagonist. Thank you for highlighting that. You may have singlehandedly jumped started that project again.

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    1. Yay! I hope you do pick it up again. It’s funny, because I included that quote in my original post years ago but didn’t know where I got it from (and am now much conscious of attributions), but then stumbled across the author’s site and the page where she says that, so I could include it.

      Its certainly a book I think many non fantasy readers would enjoy a lot. It is often categorised YA as well.

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  2. Okay, now I feel like a loser, because I bought this book YEARS ago and never read it. Wonder if it’s still downstairs somewhere or if it was a victim of one of my (infrequent) purges…
    Nice review, Ellen!

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