‘The stake that sticks up gets hammered down, as my father always said, but I would not be hammered down.’ So says Kasumi, the vibrant 16-year-old girl at the heart of The Peony Lantern. It is nineteenth century Japan and Kasumi becomes a lady in waiting in the home of a Samurai where she is quickly drawn into the household’s dangerous and, ultimately, deadly secrets.
This masterfully written and lyrical novel challenges the tenets of the times and a woman’s role in it. Frances Watts weaves the narrative through the arts of the period, from the haiku openings of each chapter through the poems of Kasumi’s grandmother to the various forms of painting, creating a depth of imagery that tells a story of its own. There is vivid attention to detail that draws the reader in — from the miniature, ‘tender fern shoots curling in the shade of the larger fronds’, to the grandiose teeming city of Edo. The underlying tension simmers and the intrigue builds through several surprising twists. Ultimately, this is a book about observation so it is no surprise to reflect that the clues were all there, making The Peony Lantern an enlightening and thoroughly satisfying read.