The Printmaker's Daughter: A Novel

Image of The Printmaker's Daughter: A Novel
Release Date: 
November 21, 2011
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a sweeping, breathtaking story . . . and characters you will long remember . . . the poetry of her prose. . . . The Printmaker’s Daughter is a particular joy.”

If you read one novel this year by a writer you may be unfamiliar with, read The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier; even if you are familiar with Ms. Govier’s novels, this one is unmatched literary fiction. Not only will you be rewarded with a sweeping, breathtaking story, and characters you will long remember, but you will also be guided, from the first sentence to the last, by the poetry of her prose.

Admittedly, I’m biased, as Ms. Govier, like me, is a Canadian, but my bias comes more from her skill with words than her nationality. I have been reading and enjoying her novels for years, but The Printmaker’s Daughter is a particular joy.

I was struck by how much I loved this book early in the reading of it when I noticed how many of the first 50 pages—of the more than 500—I had dog-eared because I wanted to return and savor again a line, a paragraph, or even just a word that, like a brush stroke in a traditional Japanese painting, says so much.

The novel is set during the Edo period, a particularly repressive time for artists and writers in 19th century Japan. During this time, the famous printmaker, Hokusai, lived and worked. Ms. Govier fictionalizes his life and, more importantly, the life of Oei—the daughter of his old age (at 40)—who became an ukiyo-e, or “artist of the everyday.”

Oei is brilliantly written and endlessly fascinating. From a young age, she is exposed to her father’s studio, to the notorious Yoshiwara district and its bordellos, to Kabuki theater, and also to the calmer countryside, in her father’s endless quest for artistic inspiration, and a means to make money and keep his family from starving.

In the Yoshiwara district Oei and her father meet, among others, a young woman named Shino who was sold into prostitution by her husband. The two women are heart-breaking examples of the submissive lives that females in that society were forced to abide.

As the Shogun become more controlling and repressive, Hokusai travels, in an attempt to avoid arrest and to keep on working. Often, his daughter is by his side dealing with all the everyday aspects of life so that he can create art. She also creates art, under his direction, and becomes the hand behind some of the famous works that are attributed to him.

The Printmaker’s Daughter is detailed in a way that only a carefully researched book can be, but that detail is never plodding. It never gets in the way of the story, only adds to it.

The world that Ms. Govier has recreated is achingly human. Oei’s is a heartrending story of the cost of artistic temperament and the cost of being a women.

As Oei says of herself, at the end of The Printmaker’s Daughter: “I am the brush. I am the line. I am the color,” but she also adds that ”I am she, Hokusai’s daughter.”

The “real” Oei disappeared in the summer of 1857 after a man asked her to paint an inn. According to her niece, “Oei put her brushes in her sleeve pocket and went out. Since then, she has been missing.”

Missing, yes, but not forgotten.