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.
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
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.