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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609

The Gardens of Kyoto  is based on the short story of the same title, which won the Pushcart and O. Henry Prizes in 2000 and which has become the first chapter of this novel. Kate Walbert uses her considerable imagination to expand on the lives of her original characters. As...

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The Gardens of Kyoto is based on the short story of the same title, which won the Pushcart and O. Henry Prizes in 2000 and which has become the first chapter of this novel. Kate Walbert uses her considerable imagination to expand on the lives of her original characters. As Ellen, her sisters, and their relatives come of age in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Walbert places their individual lives in the larger context of American society and the American past.

A key theme of The Gardens of Kyoto is the effect of war on people who lose a loved one, or soldiers who witness too much carnage for their minds to bear. The narrator approaches the subject from an oblique angle, but the loss brought on by war is never far from the heart of the novel. Young Randall, who dies at eighteen, shows that war can kill people before they have reached their full potential, robbing them of a chance to live their life. Lieutenant Rock and Roger Goodall demonstrate that the experience of horror can lead to suicide or abusive behavior against their own families. Ellen, left behind by Randall’s death, wonders why she was spared, and what a future with her beloved cousin might have been like.

When ten-year-old Ellen meets Randall at Easter in 1940, the twelve-year-old boy quotes Winston Churchill’s lines, spoken after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, almost as if to foreshadow that their relationship will forever be linked to war. He is a terribly thin, shy boy who spends his time reading and practicing “dramatic presentation,” like the young Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to ready himself for the public arena. Living alone with his stern father, Sterling, after the death of Sterling’s wife Jeannette, Randall introduces his cousin to the mysteries of the house.

He is obsessed with finding the room where escaped slaves hid before the Civil War. Back then, the house was a station of the Underground Railroad, which tried to ferry runaway slaves from the South to the relative security of the North, or even Canada. Four years later, at Easter, 1944, Randall has finally found the secret room. Surrounded by almost hundred-year-old debris from the past, he and Ellen consummate their love on “the cold, dirt floor” for the first and only time.

Randall proves fatalistic when it comes to war. Not yet seventeen, he volunteers, fully expecting not to survive. He quotes English poets from World War I, many of whom died in the fighting, such as Wilfred Owen and Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the pen name Saki. Ellen is dismayed at Randall’s resigned attitude. She becomes upset when, before boarding his troop train to San Francisco, he tells her that he will bequeath to her his few most cherished possessions.

Among these possessions is the book The Gardens of Kyoto. Randall’s biological mother, Ruby, had sent it to him on his thirteenth birthday. When the flamboyant Ruby found out that she was pregnant with Randall in Paris in 1926, she received the book from a kindly professor, whom Randall and Ellen have christened “Professor X.” Shell-shocked in World War I, the professor had regained his sanity by drawing the flowers which grew among the trenches on the bloodied letters recovered from the bodies of fallen soldiers. His drawings were later published in a book, just as in reality, an essay on “The Birds of the Western Front” was published by friends of Saki, who died in that war.

The guidebook’s central observation is that most of Kyoto’s world-famous gardens are not for walking, but for viewing only. They often represent craftily created illusions or riddles, such as a rock garden in which only fourteen of its fifteen rocks can ever be observed at the same time, or a garden that lies behind a window closed by a shoji screen. For Ellen, the book becomes a metaphor for trying to figure out the meaning of her own life.

Ellen treasures the book and is aware of the irony that Randall knew about Japanese culture, and yet fought Japan until he died at Iwo Jima. According to the official report, his death was strangely accidental. The main battle was already won and he died in a last skirmish, losing his life to one of the unpredictable quirks of war. As the novel unfolds, the reader is introduced to further entanglements in the lives of the main characters, who strike up relationships with several new people. What unifies Walbert’s story is a double focus on death, especially death in war, and its counterpart, birth.

The fates of many characters hinge upon a pregnant mother’s decision. Randall’s mother Ruby decides not to sacrifice her career as a hat designer. Refusing to marry Sterling Jewell, the father of her child, she hands the baby over to Jeannette, who raises him as her own and whom Sterling marries. After Jeannette’s death, Ruby never meets Randall in person. When she writes to him about the truth of his origin and sends him The Gardens of Kyoto for his thirteenth birthday, Randall burns her card but keeps the book. He tells Ellen that he does this out of respect for books, not for his mother.

In college, Ellen befriends Daphne, who is in love with her professor, Gideon Taylor. Impregnated by him, Daphne drops out for a semester and plans to go to Eastern Europe to have an abortion. Decades later, Ellen finds out that Daphne kept the baby after all. Now, Alex is a grown man who attends graduate school in Philadelphia, and obviously loves his mother very much.

Daphne’s decision is juxtaposed to Ellen’s own choice. Out on a double date, Daphne and Ellen take a break from their dates only to meet Lieutenant Henry Rock, who is about to serve during the Korean War. Henry falls in love with Daphne and writes to her from the war zone. In love with her professor, Daphne forwards Henry’s letters to Ellen. She suggests that Ellen impersonate her and write back to the soldier.

Ellen cannot bring herself to this deceit. When Henry returns, he cannot find Daphne but settles for Ellen. The two spend the fall of 1952 in a doomed love affair. After Henry’s post-traumatic stress disorder confines him to the Veterans Administration hospital, Ellen searches out his war buddy Tilsie. To her surprise, she learns that when Henry received no reply letters from Daphne, he wrote fake replies to himself. To keep up the morale of his troops, he shared these fake letters with them, demonstrating that America had not forgotten any one of them.

When Henry commits suicide, Walbert’s novel implies, he is as much a casualty of war as Randall, or the cherished, if imaginary, Professor X. The death of Ellen’s own sister Rita is attributed to her husband Roger’s peculiar changes once he returns from the European battlefields. On Thanksgiving Day, 1945, Rita shows her shocked family the bruises covering her body, yet her mother and her father never intervene. Roger has become such a fierce wife-batterer that one year later, he kills Rita in an act of domestic violence. In accordance with societal standards at the times, Walbert implies, Roger is able to cover up his murder as an accident.

It is for her murdered sister that Ellen names her own daughter Rita. Unmarried to Henry, the dead father of her child, Ellen moves into a convent and gives up her baby for adoption. In a curious way, this mirrors the act of Randall’s biological mother and contrasts Daphne’s response in a similar situation. The reader is offered two choices by two different fictional women, who act in opposing ways to a similar conflict.

The Gardens of Kyoto is an ambitious book. The strongest focus of the novel is on the price war enacts on the bodies and the psyches of those who have to endure it. Randall and Henry are the most direct victims, and their deaths bring suffering to Ellen, the woman who loved them.

Walbert is also interested in the fate of the slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her novel tries to tie together the two themes by having Randall identify with the runaway slaves. He tells Ellen that he has seen their ghosts, just as Ellen will later see Randall’s ghost at the hospital where Henry is admitted before his suicide. Randall added to this self-identification with the slaves when he added both the date of his birth, and the year of his presumed death, 1945, to the numbers the slaves wrote in an undecipherable code on the walls of their hideaway.

In addition to highlighting the problems of domestic abuse and women’s relative lack of control over their bodies and careers in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Walbert’s novel also plays with the aesthetic devices of narrative indeterminability, subjectivity, and unreliable memory. Overall, however, Ellen turns out to be a truthful narrator. Yet, since Randall died when he and Ellen were both so young, their love remains more of an ideal and a promise than a manifested reality.

For a reader interested in a somewhat melancholy account of an irretrievably lost love, the pains of a second love that cannot come to fruition, and many surprise revelations about its characters,The Gardens of Kyoto offers a densely researched, fascinating tale. Kate Walbert’s first novel brings to life an epoch that keeps the reader’s attention.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (February 15, 2001): 1117.

Library Journal 126 (February 1, 2001): 126.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 12, 2001): 60.

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