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The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert

The Gardens of Kyoto (2001)

by Kate Walbert

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Kate Walbert is an extraordinary author. She has a way with words, both lyrical and seductive. If she wrote the telephone book, I know that it would be one of the most beautiful books ever written. This is my third novel by Walbert, and each time she amazes me again with the poetry and imagery with which she imbues every story.

Like her other novels I've read, A Short History of Women and Where She Went, The Gardens of Kyoto weaves stories within stories. It is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale during and following the second world war. Ellen is a young girl, growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, in love with her cousin Randall, whom we learn in the first sentence was killed on Iwo Jima. The rest of the book moves back and forth in time, mingling their tragic story with that of Ruby and Sterling, Daphne and Gideon, Ellen and John.

The narrative is written in stream of consciousness, jumping from one memory to another as she narrates her history to a person identified only at the the end of the novel. The whole novel moves at a slow pace, there is no rush of action or emotion, no crescendo, and yet it is perfect in this. It is not a story that would lend itself well to a huge reveal or adventure. And this is exactly what I love about it. It is a novel that you read simply for the joy of a beautifully written word. ( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
I really did not understand this one at all. Large portions of the plot are left hanging and never resolved. Characters do not ring true, whole thing seemed very phony. ( )
  wweisser | Jul 6, 2013 |
at first, i thought that she was trying too hard to write in a literary way, but as it got going, i really started enjoying her writing. the story itself was good, but not really what i was looking for in this moment. i might have liked it better if i'd read it some other time, it's hard to say. ( )
  elisa.saphier | Apr 2, 2013 |
The Gardens of Kyoto is a most interesting novel tracing the life of one woman (who narrates the story) from age 11 until middle age. Amy Bloom is quoted on the cover saying "...(the author) guides us from past to present, and from death to life, with affectionate detail and deep understanding." Set mostly in the mid-20th century, it is a rather complex story touching on love, death, the emotional damage of war, and even dipping back into the 19th century to include the underground railway. I would love to have read it straight through. ( )
  RebaRelishesReading | Sep 29, 2012 |
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It is not the materials in isolation that form a garden, but the fragments in relation . . .
(A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto)
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I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684869497, Paperback)

Nothing is quite as it should be in this first novel by Kate Walbert, author of the celebrated story collection Where She Went. Set in wartime Philadelphia, the story is told by Ellen, a character inhabiting a rather complex narrative device. Namely, she's looking back on the war years, from some future vantage point, recounting her experiences to her child. This framing device allows Walbert to create a novel in which the past is neither as innocent nor as simple as the reader assumes.

Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, lives for her annual visit to see her cousin Randall. Something in his odd-duck imaginings speaks to her, and their bond is cemented by the fact that they both have red hair. (Relationships have been built on less.) Yet this portrait of Randall is shadowed by loss; we know from the first that he will be killed in the war. Small wonder that nostalgia sweetens Ellen's account of their friendship: "Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper.... One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark."

Ellen tells of meeting the father of her child, of her sister's disappearance, of a friend's abortion. These are in fact the story's recurrent motifs: vanishing women, endangered children, and men permanently damaged by war. As for the titular gardens, they make but a brief appearance, in a book Randall bequests to the narrator. Yet Walbert's description of them lends an extra resonance to her themes of distance and loss, even as we discover that Ellen has been deceiving herself--and us--all along. --Claire Dederer

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:42 -0400)

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"I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?" "So begins Kate Walbert's novel about a young woman, Ellen, coming of age in the long shadow of World War II. Forty years later she relates the events of this period, beginning with the death for her favorite cousin, Randall, with whom she had shared Easter Sundays, secrets, and, perhaps, love. In an isolated, aging Maryland farmhouse that once was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Randall had grown up among ghosts: his father, Sterling, present only in body; his mother, dead at a young age; and the apparitions of a slave family. When Ellen receives a package after Randall's death, containing his diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto, her bond to him is cemented, and the mysteries of his short life start to unravel.". "The narrative moves back and forth between Randall's death in 1945 and the autumn six years later, when Ellen meets Lieutenant Henry Rock at a college football game on the eve of his departure for Korea. But it soon becomes apparent that Ellen's memory may be distorting reality, altered as it is by a mix of imagination and disappointment, and that the truth about Randall and Henry - and others - may be hidden. With lyrical, seductive prose, Walbert spins several parallel stories of the emotional damage done by war. Like the mysterious arrangements of the intricate sand, rock, and gravel gardens of Kyoto, they gracefully assemble into a single, rich mosaic."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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