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The Commoner

Cover of The Commoner

The Commoner

A Novel
It is 1959 when Haruko, a young woman of good family, marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. She is the first nonaristocratic woman to enter the mysterious, almost hermetically sealed, and longest-running monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in Haruko is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, she suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, Haruko perseveres. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman–a rising star in the foreign ministry–to accept the marriage proposal of her son, the Crown Prince. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.
Told from Haruko's perspective, meticulously researched, and superbly imagined, THE COMMONER is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarefied and controlled existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated women who, despite being visible to all, are truly understood only by each other.
From the Compact Disc edition.
It is 1959 when Haruko, a young woman of good family, marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. She is the first nonaristocratic woman to enter the mysterious, almost hermetically sealed, and longest-running monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in Haruko is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, she suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, Haruko perseveres. Thirty years later, now Empress herself, she plays a crucial role in persuading another young woman–a rising star in the foreign ministry–to accept the marriage proposal of her son, the Crown Prince. The consequences are tragic and dramatic.
Told from Haruko's perspective, meticulously researched, and superbly imagined, THE COMMONER is the mesmerizing, moving, and surprising story of a brutally rarefied and controlled existence at once hidden and exposed, and of a complex relationship between two isolated women who, despite being visible to all, are truly understood only by each other.
From the Compact Disc edition.
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    1


    IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE WAR, my family lived in Shibuya Ward, in a large house with a walled garden. The sake brewing company that my father, Tsuneyasu Endo, had inherited from his father grew and prospered under his guidance, making him a respected figure in the business community. My mother's family was older and more distinguished than my father's, a fact that she neither promoted nor attempted to hide. As for me, born in 1934, the Year of the Dog, I was an only child and wore the proper skirts that my mother laid out for me each morning. I was fond of tennis, history, and calligraphy. There was, I suppose, nothing remarkable about me as a child, save for my father's love, for it was to me that he always told his favorite stories.

    Of the world beyond our garden walls, I had little awareness. I could not yet read the newspapers, and it was only in my teens that I grew to love the radio. Good girls like me, who spent hours each day following prescriptives meant to establish their unimpeachable credentials, were even more inward than they are today. One might say that my childhood insularity was a form of hereditary protection in whose shade, like a pale, delicate mushroom, I grew. The economic depression, omnipresent anxiety, and rising nationalism that had infected our nation and others weren't things I spent time worrying about. The military was aligned under the Emperor, believing him to be a god worth dying and killing for--in his name a coup was staged and, in China, a massacre seen to its bloody end--while in his walled--and--moated palace in the center of our great capital, His Majesty remained augustly silent. On these matters, as on so many others of terrible importance, I held no opinions that I can recall, and, of course, no one ever asked me to speak my mind.

    In the first days of spring, plum blossoms appeared in our garden, perfuming the air, and camellias as red as the furoshiki in which we wrapped our holiday gifts. There were birds, I remember: one in particular, small and yellow with gray--and--black wings, used to sit and sing on the stone lantern outside my window.


    WHEN WAR CAME IN EARNEST from the far side of the world, the first major food staple to be rationed in Tokyo was rice. After that miso and shoyu went on the list, then fish, eggs, tofu, grains of all kinds. Soon everything was rationed, and whatever the size of one's house or the district one happened to be living in, the only way to feed one's family was to enter the black market and see what could be bought there for five or ten times the prewar price. This was my mother's job, as of course it was for all the women in Tokyo. Men had suddenly become a scarce commodity, if not quite as sought after as rice. It was not uncommon to see a nearly bald soldier on a street corner begging women he didn't know to add to his thousand--stitch belt. Each new stitch, it was believed, would help prevent him from being hit by a bullet.

    Monzen Nakacho, in Fukagawa District, was the most reliable source for black--market supplies. My mother and I went there twice a month. The street was always congested with lines of women waiting to buy this or that. They chatted and picked their teeth; some nursed their babies. The surface distinctions of birth, which only a year or two earlier would have been impenetrable, had by then been all but wiped away by the shortages. My mother, for example, had always been an elegant dresser, but with the war it would have been unthinkable to continue wearing formal skirts, or even traditional kimonos. Monpe, those wide--legged pants, were what women wore, and my mother was no exception. And color? There was only...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine This audiobook has the feel of an epic--it spans years, rattles social structures, and explores personal trials. Janet Song's sedate performance only emphasizes the drama of this historical novel. With her calmly measured pace and careful enunciation, Song's dramatization of Haruko's journey from typical girl to wife of the Crown Prince of Japan seems even larger and more real. The listener is at Haruko's side as she copes with the considerable changes in her life with quiet strength. Exquisite and accessible to all listeners, Song's performance reveals fascinating, lifelike scenes. The glimpse of post-WWII Japan is interesting and informative without diminishing the power of Haruko's story and Song's calm vocals. L.B.F. (c) AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine
  • New York Times Book Review "Out of this heart-wrenching history, Schwartz has woven a delicate, elegiac tale, intensely moving and utterly convincing.
    He has imaginatively reconstructed the private story while remaining largely true to the scant details that have been reported to the public. Schwartz has written about Japan before and he has established himself as a master of mood in more recent fiction, that like The Commoner is fused with terrible sadness.
    Schwartz has clearly done extensive research into the lives of the empress and crown princess and seems, as well, to have had extraordinary access to the Imperial Household Agency. He vividly evokes the secrets and ceremonies of the imperial palace. It's magical to have the curtain imaginatively lifted on these mysteries."
  • Washington Post "Schwartz has written a mesmerizing novel full of tenderness and compassion, one that convincingly invests the Japanese empress's voice with all the nuance it demands."
  • The New York Review of Books "[An] impressively imagined and often exquisite act of ventriloquism....Though he calls his main character Haruko Endo, and changes a few names and details here and there, Schwartz recreates the [Japanese empress'] story, from within, with such fidelity and in such detail that it becomes hard to tell how much of his tale is fiction, how much thinly disguised fact.... As in a Japanese room, nothing is out of place and no detail is accidental in this book.... One of Schwartz's achievements is to take us into corridors and rituals that have almost never been revealed to the public. Particularly affecting is his account of the current emperor, as seen through the eyes of his warmhearted young companion.... Throughout the novel, indeed, Schwartz gives faces and convincingly nuanced voices to people we otherwise know only as mutes and distant silhouettes-to such an extent that it's hard not to think that he must have had an inside source."
  • San Jose Mercury News "A subtle, finely wrought fiction that evokes Jane Austen.... Schwartz has followed up his highly praised novel Reservation Road with a tour de force; the creation of a wholly convincing Japanese heroine by a male American writer reflects the triumph of imagination over experience."
  • The Philidelphia Inquirer "[Schwartz] finds the heartbreak, the wistfulness and the poignancy within this world, demonstrating how easy it is to be trapped.... The monarchy depicted in The Commoner is rife with secrets and the Japanese notion of saving face, which makes the ending something of a contradiction. It both breaks with tradition and upholds it, a devastating throwback to the country's past and a move toward something resembling modernity."
  • Denver Post "Life inside the walls of Japan's Imperial Palace has not been kind to the commoners who've married there. [And] an American taking on a fictional memoir about a living Japanese empress is a gutsy move, but Schwartz makes it work. He pulls the reader into a vibrant world, rooms swimming with color but also minds battling the conflict between emotion and expectation. Haruko's voice is real [and] as she struggles to address the challenges that arise from that pivotal decision to join the royal family, she must come to terms with not just who she is but the parts of her that are important to keep. So while the external details of life in the palace remain stunning, it's Schwartz's grasp of the internal struggle that resonates after the last page is turned."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) "Schwartz pulls off a grand feat in giving readers a moving dramatization of a cloistered world."
  • Brooke Allen, The Wall Street Journal "John Burnham Schwartz leaps with prodigious skill... His book will inevitably be compared with Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, but Mr. Schwartz's work is more delicate and graceful.... Through painstaking research and a humane sensibility, Mr. Schwartz has opened a window on [a] strange, cloistered world."
  • Los Angeles Times "John Burnham Schwartz is a keen observer of Japan--his 1989 debut, Bicycle Days, nicely captured the travails of a foreigner desperate to blend in. He is also good at agony--Reservatio
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The Commoner
A Novel
John Burnham Schwartz
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