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The River Ki    by Sawako Ariyoshi order for
River Ki
by Sawako Ariyoshi
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2004 (1959)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Sawako Ariyoshi, one of Japan's most successful novelists, sets the scene for The River Ki during dramatic changes that occur in Japan between the latter years of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th. The novel is written in three parts with emphasis on the relationship between two women in each. Told from the perspective of one central character, Kimoto Hana, the story traces Hana's relationship with grandmother Toyono, Hana's second child - daughter Fumio, and Hana's granddaughter Hanako.

Upon the death of Hana's mother, grandmother and Kimoto family matriarch Toyono nurtures the child. Hana is educated at the Wakayama Girls School where she excels in her studies. Toyono teaches her to play the 'koto' (a musical instrument), the elegance of the tea ceremony, and the importance of being a good wife and strong supporter of her husband. Toyono painstakingly makes a match for Hana with Keisaku of the Matani family in Musota. Toyono yields to superstitions that a bride should never travel against the flow of the River Ki, (a.k.a. the River Yoshino in Yamato province).

Once a Japanese woman marries, she is no longer a member of her birth family, but becomes a member of her husband's family. Hana takes the role of matriarch of the Matani family, struggles with brother-in-law Kosaku (a bitter, cynical man) and gives birth to two sons (Seiichiro, and Tomokazu) and three daughters (Fumio, Kazumi, and Utea). During Keisaku's absences in serving his political offices, Hana mediates disputes, oversees the household staff, assists her blind, aging mother-in-law Yasu, and deals with family decisions, trials, and sorrows.

Part two commences twelve years later during the middle-school years of daughter Fumio. Fumio strays from everything that Hana stands for as a traditional Japanese woman. Fumio was born 'strong-willed'. Her parents often lament that with her spirit, if Fumio had been a boy, she would have been famous. At school she rebels against teachers and dress code, and rallies for causes that include women's rights. Fumio berates her mother, 'Mother, you're so helplessly old-fashioned! ... an enemy of all Japanese women by keeping me in shackles.'

Fumio attends Tokyo Women's College with a major in English literature. In Tokyo, Fumio continues her activism, and decides to choose her own husband, banker Harumi Eiji. Keisaku buys a mansion in Masago-cho, as befits his political assignments, moving away from the family home at Musota. It is in the mansion that Hana's responsibilities as matriarch increase. However, despair engulfs the Matani family when Kosaku's daughter Misono dies, followed by Fumio's son Shin, and Hana's daughter Kazumi.

Part three opens on Fumio's daughter, Hanako who establishes the same relationship with her grandmother that Hana had with Toyono many years past. Hanako enjoys visiting the sites of her homeland, learning traditions from Hana, insightfully observing the colors and the blossoms, and the beauty of the River Ki. When Keisaku dies of a heart attack, Hana sells the mansion, and travels with daughters Utae, and Fumio and children to the Matani original home, seeking refuge from the destruction of the war. Hana suffers a stroke and her health deteriorates. While Hanako nurses Hana, Fumio remains in Tokyo. Hana is in her last days of life when Fumio returns.

Ariyoshi's characters deal with the plight of women in a traditional household. She shows them coping with differences, and gives women hope that life can flow as smoothly as the River Ki. Written in lyrical prose, The River Ki is a feat of fine literature bound to classic standards, a highly recommended read, not to be skimmed but to be savored.

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