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The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

Any life but this one.” That is the wish of Aurelia Bernard, orphaned by the death of her mother and transported to 19th-century Japan by her missionary uncle. The protagonist of Ellis Avery’s first novel finds herself adopted into the Shin family, who have for centuries been the proud teachers of temae, ceremonial tea-making. Avery deftly interweaves an impressive amount of research on Japanese history into a compelling tale of both wide, historical changes and personal exigencies. The young American gradually learns the exacting customs and beliefs of the Shin’s craft and way of life, even as westernization threatens to erase them. Against her father’s wishes and family tradition, Yukako Shin strategizes to educate women and non-Japanese in the ways of temae and thus ensure its survival. Her occasional foil in both romance and politics, the geisha Miss Koito frustrates Yukako’s efforts as both women struggle not only to adapt to cultural changes but also to take advantage of opportunities opened up to them. Beneath the beautiful surface of Avery’s artfully controlled prose, akin to the tea ceremonies it describes, unrequited love, betrayal and regret give the reader a sense of deep feeling and personal urgency. Renamed Urako, the narrator finds herself also changed, caught up in a way of life that she had not imagined could be her own, but also caught between personal desires and what society permits. The novel’s essential question is that of desire: By what ceremonies, through what pains and past what obstacles must we endure in order to have not just any life but the one we most want to claim as our own?