Flowers by Night ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Set in Japan in the 1820s, Flowers by Night, by Lucy May Lennox, is a fascinating glimpse into an exotic Asian culture of two hundred years ago. Tomonosuke is of the samurai class, but he’s not an especially important samurai. He works as a sort of accountant in the office of the exchequer. He’s in his early thirties and he has a wife named Okyo. They have been married for five years but have no children because they aren’t interested in each other sexually.
Ichi is an “anma,” a blind masseur, only twenty years old. He went blind in childhood as a result of a fever and a rash. His family disowned him when he went blind, so he has no standing in society. He is a “non-person,” but he has learned to be self-reliant and to support himself by giving massages and performing as an amateur musician. He is a member of the Todoza, a guild of blind men. (Most of the Todoza members are moneylenders and for that reason are generally disliked.)
When samurai Tomonosuke meets blind masseur Ichi by chance, he is drawn to him because of his beautiful face and pays him for a massage. After several meetings, their “business” relationship turns sexual. (We are told in the background information for Flowers by Night that sexual relations between men were not only common, especially among the samurai class, but accepted and acceptable, during this period in Japanese history.)
Tomonosuke and his wife Okyo, along with Okyo’s maid, Rin, are relocated to the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Ichi tags along to be near his beloved Tomonosuke. (Ichi lived in Edo before and knows his way around.) Tomonosuke and Okyo are adjusting to life in the city when tragedy strikes.
Tomonosuke is falsely accused of embezzlement (set up by a fellow employee) and is jailed. He is waiting to be executed, he believes, when an earthquake, followed by a fire, strikes Edo. (Fires are so common in Edo that they are called “flowers of Edo.”) The jail where Tomonosuke is being held collapses in the earthquake and Tomonosuke is freed, along with the help of Okyo, Rin and Ichi. All four of them flee Edo since Tomonosuke is a wanted man. They travel, under cover, with a band of itinerant musicians. In their travels, they experience much hardship, including brutal winters (many feet of snow) and near starvation.
In the meantime, we learn that Okyo and Rin have been involved in a long-term lesbian relationship. Rin had been sold as a child to a brothel; Okyo rescued her and vowed to always take care of her. So, we have an unusual foursome: Tomonosuke and his blind lover Ichi and Okyo and her young lesbian lover Rin. The four of them together form a strong bond and, in their highly unusual circumstances, vow to always remain together, no matter what. They become a family in an uncaring and inhospitable world. Okyo feels compelled to produce an heir (especially important in an Asian culture at this time) and, since her husband Tomonosuke doesn’t have sexual relations with her, this is not going to be possible. Tomonosuke and Okyo come to believe in time that a wise expedient is to have the Tomonosuke’s blind lover Ichi conceive a child with Okyo. “Will the child be blind also?” Rin innocently asks. “Of course not!” Okyo tells her. “He wasn’t born blind!”
I haven’t ever read anything like Flowers by Night before. It’s a story about courage, about being on the outside and overcoming the odds in a world that is betting against your survival. More than that, it’s about the bonds that people can form with each other to make life a little more bearable. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp