Tuesday 24 July 2012

Across A Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer

In nineteenth century Japan, the Southern clans have risen against the Northern and claimed victory.  In the new capital of Toyko, reform is on the way as Western ideas such as eating meat, changing style of dress and the destruction of the Samurai class take precedent over tradition.  Taka is the daughter of General Kitaoka from the Southern Satsuma clan and is able to escape her fate as the daughter of a geisha by enrolling in a new Western school.  One of the servants in their household is Nobu, a boy from the Northern Aizu clan who would have been a Samurai but instead must eke out a living any way he can.  The two become close but must keep their friendship a secret.

When General Kitaoka returns to the South in anger at the corruption in the new government, things become dangerous for Taka and Nobu.  The Satsuma clan are planning another rebellion and Nobu joins the Japanese government army to fight them.  Taka is being pressurised into an arranged marriage by her mother and soon war breaks out with dangerous consequences.  Nobu is in the impossible position of fighting the Satsuma whilst trying to protect Taka and look to the future all at the same time.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by Across a Bridge of Dreams.  To start with the positives, it was clear that Downer had completed a considerable amount of research into Japan at this time and that shone through the writing.  I knew nothing about the Satsuma rebellion and appreciated learning about it through the story.  The different settings in Japan were clearly evoked with the more tropical South being distinct from Tokyo and the geisha districts.  There were fantastic little bits of information that added historical accuracy, for example the fact that married women used to blacken their teeth or explanations about the honor of being a samurai wife or daughter.

I also liked the characterisations.  I often find that the female characters in historical fiction have modern ideas and this can be jarring.  Taka did have modern ideas, wanting to marry for love and resisting an arranged marriage, but in this case it made perfect sense as she had been sent to a Western school and experienced freedom.  The female characters as a whole were well developed and interesting.

Where I think Across a Bridge of Dreams fell down was that it was completely missing grit.  I didn't mind the romance but it needed to be more balanced with sections about the harsh reality of war.  Downer did write about war and touched on some horrific scenes, but everything felt too light and fluffy, especially when you compare her writing with someone like Lisa See's.  As a result, I never felt scared for Taka or Nobu or fully engaged in the story.  There was a sense throughout that everything would work out well in the end, which ruins any suspense.

Downer also relied on some pretty fortuitous circumstances to keep reuniting Taka and Nobu throughout the story.  I know they needed to meet to move the plot along but the situations felt very  unlikely to occur in war time.  Nobu also keep running into Taka's brother out of all the soldiers in the Satsuma rebellion, something that also felt contrived and thus took some enjoyment away from reading the story.  Without spoiling the ending, it felt too neat and too 'easy', given that Downer had spent so long previously in the story explaining the enmity between Satsuma and Aizu clans.

So Across a Bridge of Dreams was a mixed bag of positives and negatives.  Unfortunately it didn't live up to my expectations.

First Published: 2012
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim - Another strong female character, this time in Korea.  Kim deals with changing culture under Japanese rule very well.
2. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See - This is how I wanted to see Downer deal with the reality of war.  I love all the Lisa See books I've read so far, but Shanghai Girls is my favourite.


  1. There is nothing worse (really) than reading a novel that should be full of grit but loses it to the romantic aspect of the narrative. I found The House at Tyneford to be somewhat similar. The entire war and its impact was completely downplayed when faced with the love story. Disappointing. It's a bummer considering you found that the author had so much to work with!

    1. The House at Tyneford is the Novel in the Viola, right? If so I have it on my TBR pile but I am fully expecting it to be a love story so I shouldn't be disappointed!

  2. It's too bad that it didn't have the right balance for you. I hadn't heard of it before, but the cover is lovely.

    1. The book is stunning in real life, I got sent a hardback copy to review. The back cover is lovely too.

  3. I think I liked your review better than the sound of the book! ;-) You know...I got stuck with a Lisa See book. Peony Flowers, I think it was, and I didn't come away with the best impression of it. But perhaps, I think I was too hasty in giving it up...

    1. Was the Lisa See you read Peony in Love? I've not read that one yet but have heard it's her worst/strangest. I've enjoyed Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.