I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.
The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.
Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.
I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.
The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.