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The Gardens of Kyoto

Nothing is quite as it should be in this first novel by Kate Walbert, author of the celebrated story collection Where She Went. Set in wartime Philadelphia, the story is told by Ellen, a character inhabiting a rather complex narrative device. Namely, she's looking back on the war years, from some future vantage point, recounting her experiences to her own child. This framing device allows Walbert to create a novel in which the past is neither as innocent nor as simple as the reader assumes.

Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, lives for her annual visit to see her cousin Randall. Something in his odd-duck imaginings speaks to her; their bond is cemented by the fact that they both have red hair (relationships have been built on less). Yet this portrait of Randall is shadowed by loss, and we know from the first that he will be killed in the war. Small wonder that nostalgia sweetens Ellen's account of their friendship: "Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper. One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark."

Ellen tells of meeting the father of her child, of her sister's disappearance, of a friend's abortion. These are in fact the story's recurrent motifs: vanishing women, endangered children, and men permanently damaged by war. As for the titular gardens, they make but a brief appearance, in a book Randall bequests to the narrator. Yet Walbert's description of them lends an extra resonance to her themes of distance and loss, even as we discover that Ellen has been deceiving herself--and us--all along. --Claire Dederer,

Important places

Kyoto-shi (90)
Philadelphia (1,090)


Philadelphia (1,109)


Kyoto (93)
Pennsylvania (4,458)


Japan (2,219)
United States (64,950)

Other geographical areas

Honshü (922)
Appalachian Mountains (1,111)
Eastern Asia (2,196)