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Distilled drama from a society in ferment

by Steve Finbow

Think of gin and one thinks of England. Think of tequila and Mexico, vodka and Russia, brandy and France. Think of sake and one thinks only of Japan.

THE SCENT OF SAKE, by Joyce Lebra. Avon Books, 2009, 384 pp., 2009, $13.99 (paperback)

Mentioned in the third-century Chinese manuscript “The Records of Three Kingdoms,” in “The Book of Wei” and in the eighth-century Japanese chronicle “Kojiki,” sake has played an important part in literature and history. Given to kamikaze pilots before suicide missions — as an offering in Shinto ceremonies — sake is almost mythical. After all, the god Susanoo defeated the eight-headed Orochi after the serpent became drunk on stolen sake.

Like rice before it is fermented, Joyce Lebra’s “The Scent of Sake” is polished. There are as many characters as there are types of sake and the author handles them with alacrity and humor. The cast includes drunken and cheating husbands, geishas, duplicitous employees and evil rivals, and the novel portrays the complicated relationships between mothers and sons, masters and servants, geishas and customers, legitimate and illegitimate children.

Opening in Kobe in 1825, “The Scent of Sake” tells the story of Rie Omura, born into a ninth-generation sake-brewing family and a world of female repression and obligation. After the accidental death of her younger brother — the rightful heir to the brewery estates — Rie is pressured into an arranged marriage to a rival brewer’s less-than-handsome son. Banned from the brewery itself — a woman’s presence is said to turn the sake sour — and forbidden to deal with money, Rie spends her time looking for a wedding kimono and dreaming about a secret and forbidden love.

Joyce Lebra, unlike many historical novelists, seamlessly weaves research into her fiction; there are no clunking facts and the story is interspersed with interesting digressions on the techniques of sake making, Shinto weddings, Buddhist funerals, the wearing of kimonos, the intricacies of ikebana, the tools of calligraphy, mochi making, rice cooking, Hina Matsuri dolls and the writing of haiku.

“The Scent of Sake” also provides a view of family life within the merchant classes. The novel tells of arranged marriages, some loveless and desultory, others loving and respectful; explores the world of geishas and pleasure quarters; and explains the commercial intricacies of sake breweries, with their offshoot businesses of money-lending, ship owning and currency exchange.

Although historical in scope, the novel also chronicles how some things do not change no matter the setting, the cast, or the country — husbands get drunk on their wedding nights, teenagers are sullen and rebellious, and behind every plot is love and/or money.

Chiefly, though, the novel is a personal biography of a woman in a changing world. Rie witnesses the shift from tradition to modernization — to a world in which steam and brick have supplanted wood and paper, and families no longer take grandmothers to die alone on a mountainside because of lack of room or food in the family home.

Thankfully, there is only one appearance of a samurai and his presence focuses the narrative on the changing stratification of Tokugawa society, the collapse of the shogunate and the subsequent restoration of the emperor.

Filled with the heady bouquet of Japanese history, from late Edo Period to the landing of the Black Ships, this is a novel about the changing culture of Japan, and how women started to take responsibility for their literacy, health and finances and gain for themselves a semblance of freedom.