Katherine Govier is the author of “Creation,” a fascinating novelization of the life of bird artist John James Audubon. She displayed her literary prowess and a deep capacity for empathy with that portrait. Her latest novel, “The Printmaker’s Daughter,” features another artist: Hokusai’s third and most gifted daughter, Katsushika Oei.
Unlike with Audubon, you probably haven’t heard about her. Oei, or Oi, is largely unknown except to some connoisseurs of Japanese art. Her famous father, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), was a prolific artist who created the celebrated wood-block series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” and the iconic and much parodied print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” Fortuitously, some of his finest works found their way to Europe and inspired such artists as Manet, Monet, van Gogh and Degas. Oei was not so fortunate: Only about 10 paintings have survived; a few still await authentication.
Oei’s story, narrated in the first person, begins in the year 1800 in Edo (now Tokyo): “I was born in a hard time. We the townspeople led an unmarked existence. We had rights to nothing, only to witness the grand shogun’s parade: the march of the doomed man to the Punishment Grounds. . . . We fed on brown rice and whispers of love suicides. . . . We, the chonin, had one name — and no face.”
Oei, though smart and assertive, is by no means a beauty. Hokusai calls her “Ago-Ago” (“Chin-Chin”), referring to her jutting lower jaw. He doesn’t bother to give her a proper name, calling her “Oi” (Hey!) or “Ei” and eventually settling on Oei.
We see little Oei following her father to Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district near the Sumida River. They are both fascinated by the goings-on: a street parade of courtesans in their elaborate kimonos and hairdos, prostitutes sitting behind latticed windows suffering the gawks of their potential clients. She befriends a courtesan and learns not the art of the pillow, but how to defend herself with a hairpin.
Hokusai journeys down the Tokaido Road, along striking seascapes and waterfalls, breathtaking views of the omnipresent snow-capped Mount Fuji, fishermen riding huge, cresting waves on their boats. She tags along and learns how to focus on painterly images and tell stories with them.
The novel takes us through significant moments in her life: her first lover, a marriage with an artist, a quick divorce followed by many years of living with Hokusai. Eventually, Oei begins to sell her art, brilliant scenes of Yoshiwara and the beautiful women of Edo. Like her father, she does not shy away from creating shunga (erotic prints), competing in a male-dominated field that yields lucrative commissions.
Govier sprinkles in a wide variety of historical characters along with their stories. Oei meets famous artists such as Utamaro and the legendary kabuki actor Danjuro VII. Philipp Franz von Siebold, the German doctor with the Dutch East India Co., visits Edo from Nagasaki in search of Hokusai’s work. Oei meets Siebold and asks him questions about Shakespeare. Did he have a daughter? Did she help him with his writing? Siebold replies: “England is not like here. Shakespeare’s work was not a family project.”
By the middle of this novel, readers may begin to suspect that Govier has another agenda in mind: to show that Hokusai’s studio was indeed a family project and that Oei played a major role in the creation of his woodcuts and paintings. In the book’s afterword, Govier spells out her underlying thesis: “How is it that a woman known by her peers to be ‘an excellent painter,’ as good as or better than her very famous ‘old man’ . . . can disappear from the record?”
As good or better than her father? Stricken from the record? Could all this be true?
On one level, this novel is intended for those who enjoyed Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” — as entertainment, and a fine one at that. On another level, though, it is a challenge for readers to put on their scholar’s glasses and see if all this is based on history.
You might begin with Ann Yonemura’s “Hokusai,” an authoritative catalogue raisonne published in 2006 for the Hokusai exhibition held at the Freer/Sackler Gallery in Washington that provided the impetus for writing this novel. I found the BBC TV documentary on Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” detailed and fascinating; also, on YouTube, you can watch the NHK TV documentary “Onna Hokusai” (“Female Hokusai”); it is in Japanese with no subtitles, but it supports much of what Govier has written in her book.
At the very least, readers should see the paintings of Katsushika Oi (or Oei) that are available online but unfortunately missing in “The Printmaker’s Daughter.” An earlier edition, published in Govier’s native Canada under a different title, “The Ghost Brush,” showed a portion of Oei’s exquisite painting on the cover. A chip off the old block, you might say.
Tanabe is a former art director and senior editor of Book World.
THE PRINTMAKER’S DAUGHTER
By Katherine Govier
HarperPerennial. 501 pp. Paperback, $14.99