'The Commoner' by John Burnham Schwartz
Published on Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 9:20am
This is such a beautifully written and fascinating story I found myself so quickly caught up in a world that was previously not well known to me that it was hard for me to tell where biographical/historical fact ended and novelistic imagination began. The fact that the story of Haruko's marriage into the semi-divine confines of Japan's royal family is based on a true story only makes this book that much more intriguing.
Although it's completely authentic in its tiny details of palace life, ultimately what makes this book so pleasurable of a read is its first-person narrative. Haruko is a wonderful and original character that you can't help but root for. Her journey from a cloistered family upbringing in the rubble of World War II through Japan's remarkable 20th-century history is so deep and so true that it's hard to believe it was written by a man. Interestingly, one thing I kept thinking as I was enjoying this wonderful book is that by bringing me into the interior life of this uniquely contemporary Japanese monarch that I was somehow seeing another late 20th-century royal icon on a different continent who also paid a price for being born a commoner.
The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz's story about the Japanese imperial family, takes as its centerpiece one of the most startling stories of the continuation of ancient royal tradition into the 20th century: the life and career of the current Empress Michiko, the first commoner in memory to marry an heir to the throne. The moment she enters the palace; she never sees her family again.
The empress's life has been paradoxically both extremely dramatic and intensely stultifying. Despised by the court insiders (and in particular by her imperial mother-in-law) for her common birth and unfamiliarity with court customs, and worn down by the dullness of court routine and the strictures of imperial traditions, the empress had a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s after the birth of her first son, losing her voice completely for several months. Then, when her husband succeeded to the throne and her son wanted to marry another commoner (this time an Oxford-educated career diplomat), she saw her own new daughter-in-law go through the same horrors she had three decades previously and then even more when the young woman cannot produce a male heir.
The author has as his narrator the empress, here known as "Haruko." The names are changed because Schwartz varies from the story of the current empress, particularly at the end, where he imagines a different fate for the current crown princess heroically engineered by her kindly mother-in-law.
The best thing about the book is its lovely prose style, which seems simultaneously elegant and understated, as prettily befits its subject. And where else will you find a novel told from the point of view of an actual living empress? That rarity alone makes it worthy of attention. Having a peek inside the Japanese Palace is a real treat. The Japanese culture is quite fascinating.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this story. I chose the B.O.D version because I was traveling and am glad I did because it made the distance feel shorter and the traffic jam did not bother me at all. Check it out.