Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

It is 1959 when Haruko, a young woman of good family, marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she perseveres. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman—a rising star in the foreign ministry—to accept the marriage proposal of her son, the Crown Prince. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.

Told in the voice of Haruko, meticulously researched and superbly imagined, The Commoner is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarified and controlled existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated women who, despite being visible to all, are truly understood only by each other. With the unerring skill of a master storyteller, John Burnham Schwartz has written his finest novel yet.

An online friend read this book and gave it a five out of five. That may not normally be enough for me to pick up a book, but she is rather picky about her reading and rarely seems to give book higher than the three range, so I decided that was a good enough reason for me! As soon as I saw that five, it didn't even matter the subject matter, I knew that it was something I should pick up. I am very glad that I did! I had never heard of the author before and I wasn't very familiar with the subject, but once I got caught up in the pages all of that was quickly forgotten!

A lot of my history seems to centre around my own history, with a bit of random stuff thrown in. There is so much to learn about when it comes to history, though, that you cannot be an expert on everything. Japan is not an aspect of history that I have ever really concentrated on. Not that it is not interesting, but more along the lines that you really can't read everything. I do find Japanese history worthy, they are the oldest monarch after all, but I was concentrating on Western history. It is nice to break out of your comfort zone once in a while, though, and I am glad that I chose to with this book.

One of the biggest problems, for me, with male authors is when they try to write about women. It is not an easy thing to do to pretend to be the other sex; to get into their head, but I think he did a really good job! He was trying to portray the isolation that came with being a member of the Royal Family, while at the same time see it from a female point-of-view. Being royalty, in many ways, is something that you just have to be born for. Not everyone takes to it, that is for sure, and the two women that are looked at exclusively in this novel have a very hard time coming to terms with it. They are, in essence, commoners, and this is a life that they have never had to be a part of before. With it comes many responsibilites that they may not actually be ready for! They have a role to play, and it is not what they were raised to aspire to, that is for sure...

Wonderfully written, this novel was well-worth my time! I strongly recommend it. It inspired me to hopefully read more books on Japanese history, but that does not mean the chance will present itself! So many books, so little time, after all! I hope others will give it a chance!


  1. Excellent review. I didn't know about this book or author either. I am adding this to mt. TBR.

  2. I thought this one was very good, too despite ending up having some mixed feelings about it. I did spend a lot of time looking up stuff about the real Empress of Japan. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Teddy - I totally overlooked this book until recently, so I am glad that I was turned on to it because it was a very good read!

    Suzi- Yeah, the person that recommended it gave it a five out of five. I don't think I would go quite that high, but I did really enjoy reading it.

  4. Last year I read a non-fiction book about the current princess, wife of the crown prince, that I believe this story is based on. I added this to my wishlist a while ago but hadn't really heard any reviews of it. Good to know that you enjoyed it. I'll definitely have to look out for it.

  5. A non-fiction book on this would be a good idea. One of these days!


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