A Katherine Govier book is as much history lesson as literary entertainment. In this, her ninth novel, Govier chronicles the life of a groundbreaking female artist in 19th-century Japan.
Set against the backdrop of the late Edo period, The Ghost Brush tells the story of Katsushika Oei. When she was born, Oei’s father, the famous printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, plucked her from her mother’s arms and claimed her as his own. The dysfunctional relationship between father and daughter forms the primary focus of the novel, though Govier includes a cast of entertaining characters, shifting locations, descriptions of local customs, and many historical facts, resulting in a complex and dense book. Somehow, she manages to impart an enormous amount of information without bogging down the story. It’s an impressive feat, one that she has pulled off before, though perhaps not so ambitiously.
As a narrator speaking from beyond the grave, Oei is a bit pallid. Her existence is rife with interesting twists and frustrating realities, but she is rarely impassioned. Even in describing her death (this is a story told by a ghost, after all, so no spoiler alert is needed), she is so matter-of-fact as to render the impact of the event underwhelming.
But her character is a highly useful authorial tool, as Govier is able to describe the inhumane treatment of Japanese women during the period, when forced prostitution and abuse were the norm. Oei is a rebel, a “man-woman” who drinks, smokes, takes lovers, and doesn’t cook or sew. She is, in essence, the female version of her father. Despite the fact that she is proclaimed by master artisans, including her dear “Old Man,” to be a better artist than Hokusai, her gender prevents her from gaining the recognition she justly deserves, sentencing her to an eternity as an unknown.
Govier’s ability to mould history to suit her fictional vision is on full display here. Fans of her previous work will no doubt devour every vivid detail.