The Teahouse Fire
Title: The Teahouse Fire
Author: Ellis Avery
Relocated from 1866 New York to Japan by an abusive missionary guardian, young Aurelia Bernard befriends the daughter of Kyoto’s most influential tea master, who accepts her into the family in spite of disapproving conventions and instructs her about the fading tradition of the tea ceremony.
A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women — one American, one Japanese — whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan.
When nine-year-old Aurelia Bernard takes shelter in Kyoto’s beautiful and mysterious Baishian teahouse after a fire one night in 1866, she is unaware of the building’s purpose. She has just fled the only family she’s ever known: after her French immigrant mother died of cholera in New York, her abusive missionary uncle brought her along on his assignment to Christianize Japan. She finds in Baishian a place that will open up entirely new worlds to her — and bring her a new family.
It is there that she discovers the woman who will come to define the next several decades of her life, Shin Yukako, daughter of Kyoto’s most important tea master and one of the first women to openly practice the sacred ceremony known as the Way of Tea. For hundreds of years, Japan’s warriors and well-off men would gather in tatami-floored structures — teahouses — to participate in an event that was equal parts ritual dance and sacramental meal. Women were rarely welcome, and often expressly forbidden. But in the late nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors to the West for the first time, and the seeds of drastic changes that would shake all of Japanese society, even this most civilized of arts, were planted.
Taking her for the abandoned daughter of a prostitute rather than a foreigner, the Shin family renames Aurelia “Urako” and adopts her as Yukako’s attendant and surrogate younger sister. Yukako provides Aurelia with generosity, wisdom, and protection as she navigates a culture that is not accepting of outsiders. From her privileged position at Yukako’s side, Aurelia aids in Yukako’s crusade to preserve the tea ceremony as it starts to fall out of favor under pressure of intense Westernization. And Aurelia herself is embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.
An utterly absorbing story told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.