Mark Henshaw, The snow kimono (Review)

Mark Henshaw, The snow kimonoI wasn’t far into Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono before I started to sense some similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro. I was consequently tickled when, about halfway through, up popped a secondary character named Mr Ishiguro. Coincidental? I can’t help thinking it’s not – but I haven’t investigated whether Henshaw has said anything about this. I’m not at all suggesting, however, that The snow kimono is derivative. It’s certainly not. It’s very much its own book, one that manages to somehow marry an Ishiguro-like “floating” and rather melancholic pace with a page-turning one. On the surface it’s a mystery story, but in reality is something far more complex. Interested? Read on …

Before I discuss the novel, though, I do want to say a little about the author who is not well known. The snow kimono is Henshaw’s second novel. His first, Out of the line of fire, was published in 1988, and was well-received critically, garnering a couple of awards. The snow kimono won this year’s New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. Henshaw has worked as a translator, but retired in 2012 as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which is where I attended the launch of this book late last year. (PS I lied a bit about this being Henshaw’s second novel. He has also written two collaborative crime fiction novels, under the name J M Calder, with another local writer, John Clanchy, whose Six I’ve reviewed here)

And now, back to The snow kimono. It is set in Paris and Japan, with a brief foray to Algeria, and spans the late 1950s to the late 1980s. It concerns the lives of a Frenchman, the retired Inspector Jovert, and two Japanese men, a former Professor of Law, Tadashi Omura, and his old schoolfriend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda. The novel has a complex structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, and between the two main storytellers, Jovert and Omura.

The story commences in Paris, 1989, with the recently retired Jovert receiving a letter from a woman claiming to be a daughter he didn’t know he had (from a relationship in Algeria some thirty years previously). Coincidentally – or is it? – he is confronted by Omura, who has his own tortuous daughter-who-is-not-really-my-daughter story. The novel comprises the stories told by these two men: Omura of his life in Osaka and friendship with the narcissistic Katsuo, and Jovert of his experience in Algeria as a French “interrogator” and of his wife and son. Early on we discover that Omura is the guardian of Katsuo’s daughter because Katsuo is in gaol for an undisclosed (until much later) crime. Complex “truths” about parents and children, and about about who is really whom, underpin the plot’s narrative. There are lies galore …

“the future changes everything”

This novel is a captivating read – for its language, story and ideas – but it demands concentration. There are many characters, and relationships can be obscure or seemingly convoluted. However, as the two men talk, we realise that, while on the surface a plot is slowly being unravelled, Henshaw’s real interests are deeper. How do you live with the lies you have kept, or told yourself? What is memory, and how does it relate to truth? How meaningful is truth at any one time when “the future changes everything”. What does this mean?

Two-thirds though the novel, Jovert reflects

that he had spent most of his life listening to people, sifting through what they said, weighing, assessing. Trying to fit things together. But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together. And sometimes not even then.

This is a clue to the paradoxical nature of this novel, and to one of the reasons why it reminds me of Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s books, like Henshaw’s novel, tend to be about memory, its reliability and what it does or doesn’t tell us about who we are. Of course, memory is not an unusual theme for novelists, but it’s the tone, the use of foreshadowing, and the ground-shifting, the pulling of the rug from under us one way and then another, that connected these two authors for me.

So, in The snow kimono, it’s not only Omura and Katsuo who have been living on secrets and lies, but also Jovert. Confronted by the letter and by Omura’s challenge to him that he should meet his daughter, he starts the process of forcing “his memory to surrender what he has spent decades trying to forget”. He had seen memory as a “sanctuary” that can bind people together, but he now sees this is “an illusion”. Memories can in fact “change, be destroyed, be rewritten”, they can be “shuffled, reshuffled”. And so, the man who, during the Algerian War of Independence, had coldly and brutally encouraged others “to recall things they might have otherwise forgotten. Or said they had” now has to confront the “truth”.

The problem is that:

Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat. It concertinas life’s slow unfolding into time-less event, sifting the significant from the insignificant in a heartless, hurried way. It unlinks the chain. But how did you know what counted unless you let time pass?

Memory is not absolute. It’s mutable, shifting with time, with perspective, with maturity.

I found The snow kimono a deeply satisfying book for this very reason. It suggests that nothing is fixed and that, moreover, as Katsuo cynically says to Omura, there is no “completion”. What does all this say, though, about how we are to live, because surely, this is what the book is about.

The novel’s opening paragraph states that “there is no going back”. This idea is repeated in the narrative: Jovert states after a brutal time in Algeria that “truth can’t be undone”, and Katsuo says after other brutality that “you can’t undo what you’ve done”. However, Jovert does come to believe that “perhaps it was not too late to atone”. What do you think?

There is so much more to this book that I might be driven to write another post …

Mark Henshaw
The snow kimono
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922182340