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Fudoki
ISBN: 0765303906

By Kij Johnson
Review by: Kim Wells

6/2/04

Kij Johnson's Fudoki is the second of her novels wherein she re-imagines a Japanese myth as a first person fairy tale narrative. This well-written lyrical work illuminates the position of women in ancient Japan at the same time that it simply tells an interesting story, of the sort I wish I had written. It also makes cat-lovers smile.

Fudoki's fairy tale protagonist begins life as a tortoiseshell cat, living an idyllic life with her matriarchal kinship (her fudoki--or oral history). Even when the main character turns into a woman she retains much of her feline nature. She becomes a young noblewoman on a spiritual quest after fleeing a fire that destroys most of her world. We don't really know who or why she becomes a woman-- perhaps it is a goddess, perhaps some trick of magic or fate. The cat turned beautiful young woman runs into spirits, gods & goddesses, and participates in a war (fighting with great skill-- of course a cat would be a natural warrior, even/especially a girl cat). Her story is ultimately a quest for her place in the world-- cat, woman, human-- which will it be? The story captures the mood of loss and fear and pain, and the story, despite it's possibilities to descend into "cuteness" stays powerful and moving. The cat thinks:

Where was her tale? Gone, the cats dead, the ground lost. She arched and backed away, tail shivering, teeth bared; and when she was far enough from the terrible stories, she turned and bolted. Howling as she ran, she streaked across Suzaku avenue, midway between the great gates that began and ended the avenue. Suzaku avenue is very broad; grief began at her crossing. . .(39)

We also have the parallel narrative of a dying old woman who is the emperor's sister, and there is the suggestion that perhaps the story we are reading of the cat turned woman is one she is writing-- but we never know if it's supposed to be a true story or a fiction she makes up to pass the time. Through this storyline, we learn about the noblewoman's life at court, about her lovers, her marriage, and her relationships with women-- including her maid, who is also, in a way, her best friend. The insight into women's lives and relationships in this section is one of my favorite parts of this fine novel.

When we have been awake all night, we commonly sleep the day away; the more so when the next night promises no rest. By midday, most of my women had retired, though several stayed with me, concealing their yawns so poorly that I sent them away. And then there were only myself and Shigeko, who might as well be my skin, so closely joined are we. (215)

But what the novel does best is contribute to a new perspective (at least, new to me) on fairy tale. We don't have the overt-moralizing and moralistic preaching of Grimm's, or other European based fairy tales. This is one of the best novels, and one of the most interesting fairy tales, that I have read. I eagerly scooped up Johnson's first novel (a similar re-telling of an old Japanese myth titled The Fox Woman) because of this one, and found that her second novel's maturity had helped me enjoy it more than the first (although that one is good too--if darker, and more disturbing).

The narrative's interweaving storylines and autobiographical/confessional tone, intimate details and glimpses into women's (and cat's) domestic spaces and a sensation of a quest for true freedom in a constrained world for women make this a real pleasure to read. I look forward to Johnson's next venture into this fictional space, promised on the book's back liner notes. Cat lovers, Japan-ophiles, and fairy tale nuts will all enjoy this book. But it is NOT a cutesy "cat tale". This is how one imagines a cat might relate to the world and tell us its life story. No-nonsense, yet lyrically poetic and engaging. This was a novel that surprised me, and one I am very happy to have encountered.






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