Thomas Blake Glover, the “Scottish Samurai,” arrived in Japan in 1859 and over the next 52 years made and lost more than one fortune. He helped set up Mitsubishi and Kirin, developed shipbuilding and coal-mining in Japan and arranged for the first steam train to be shipped to the country. He also supplied weapons to the Satsuma and Choshu clans and smuggled the famous Choshu 5 out of Japan so they could study in Britain in preparation for the uprising that would lead to the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

The Pure Land, by Alan Spence
394 pages
Canongate Books, Fiction.

His was a life so extraordinary, it’s hard to believe — but it’s all true. Alan Spence brilliantly dramatizes Glover’s roller-coaster life in “The Pure Land.” It’s a page-turner that does much more than hit the highlights; this is also a story of love and loneliness, of a man so driven he could never stop. Spence tells it with gentleness and the same deep understanding of human nature he has brought to all his work.

A student of Zen Buddhism and a celebrated haiku poet, Spence’s interests have seeped into every line of his prose, adding a much needed spiritual dimension to a tale of 19th-century trade and political intrigue.

Glover’s former home in Nagasaki has become a major tourist attraction and is well worth a visit, but while his ghost is imperceptible in its cool wooden rooms, the spark that survived so many trials and disappointments lives on in “The Pure Land.”

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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