American Library Association Stonewall Fiction Award
Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction
Ohioana Library Fiction Award
Kiriyama Prize Notable Book
Booklist Top 10 First Novels on Audio
American Booksellers’ Association Booksense Pick
“When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”
The story of two women whose lives intersect in late-nineteenth-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire is also a portrait of one of the most fascinating places and times in all of history: Japan as it opens its doors to the West. It was a period when one’s choice of kimono could make a political statement, when women stopped blackening their teeth to profess allegiance to Western ideas, and when Japan’s most mysterious rite– the tea ceremony– became not just a sacramental meal, but a ritual battlefield.
We see it all through the eyes of Aurelia Bernard, an American orphan who has just turned her back on the only family she has left: the abusive missionary uncle who has brought her along on his mission to Christianize Japan. One night in 1866, fleeing both her uncle and a fire that sweeps the city, she takes shelter in Kyoto’s beautiful and mysterious Baishian teahouse, a place that will open entirely new worlds to her– and bring her a new family.
It is there that she discovers the woman who will come to define the next several decades of her life, Shin Yukako, daughter of Kyoto’s most important tea master and one of the first women to openly teach the sacred ceremony known as the Way of Tea. Taking Aurelia for the abandoned daughter of a prostitute rather than a foreigner, the Shin family renames her Urako and adopts her as Yukako’s attendant and surrogate younger sister. Yukako provides Aurelia with generosity, wisdom, and protection as she navigates a culture that is not always accepting of outsiders. From her privileged position at Yukako’s side, Aurelia aids in her crusade to preserve the tea ceremony as it starts to fall out of favor under pressure of intense Westernization. And Aurelia herself is embraced and rejected as modernizing Japan embraces and rejects an era of radical change.
An utterly absorbing story told in an enchanting and unforgettable voice, The Teahouse Fire is a lively, provocative, and lushly detailed historical novel of epic scope and compulsive readability.