Friday 13 March 2015

The Snow Kimono - Mark Henshaw (2014)

Until the publication of The Snow Kimono Mark Henshaw was one of those writers who had produced a brilliant debut novel and then had disappeared, well, almost. In 1988 Out of the Line of Fire received rave reviews, sold well and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Apart from co-writing two crime novels under a pseudonym in 1997 and 2007 Henshaw all but disappeared off the literary map. Now freshly retired from his job as curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw has written a novel that continues Out of the Line of Fire’s experiments with meta-fiction and examines the very nature of storytelling itself.

The Snow Kimono begins in Paris with protagonist Auguste Jovert, a retired police inspector whose past is catching up with him via a letter from a lost Algerian daughter. Enter Tadashi Omura, a Japanese neighbor who befriends Jovert and shares stories from his past about his problematic friendship with narcissistic writer Katsuo Ikeda. The narrative consists of stories within stories, exploring themes such as the nature of perception, ‘truth’ and identity. At one point I wondered whether I was in fact reading a transcript from one of Ikeda’s novels and in hindsight I’m still not exactly sure. Metafictional clues are offered when Jovert pores over maps of Algiers, trying to make sense of the complex street-scape of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and blind alleys. There’s also a section in which Omura’s father’s obsession with Japanese jigsaw puzzles is featured, which is essentially both an analogy for The Snow Kimono itself and a means to explore the themes of perception and subjectivity. 

The Snow Kimono is complex but beautifully written, with a spare and poetic style that is very Japanese, despite Henshaw being Australian born. The sections set in Japan are particularly resonant, with descriptions of nature that acts as a metaphor for a character’s state of being. There is often a profound sense of foreboding, that all is not as it seems; which is compounded by events and outcomes that are often only hinted at. Henshaw’s obtuse way with narrative does have its drawbacks however; although initially absorbing, the novel’s fragmented narrative resulted in a degree of alienation from the characters and a nagging frustration from trying to put all the pieces together. Whilst Henshaw adroitly resolves many of the mysteries at the heart of the novel, he also casts doubt on aspects of the narrative that were thought to be already understood. The result is that The Snow Kimono is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed; although I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve read too many self aware fragmented novels and I’m in need of the simple joys of a linear plot.

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