The Ghost Brush
Katherine Govier, ’70 BA
HarperCollins Canada, harpercollins.ca
The finest of pre-modern Japan’s female artists have been overshadowed by male masters, for whom some probably worked as “ghost painters” (the Japanese word, daihitsu, literally means “substitute brushes”). Whereas many modern viewers can recall Katsushika Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji, few know of his daughter Oi — an accomplished artist and the inspiration for Katherine Govier’s The Ghost Brush.
This mesmerizing novel conjures her as a spectral narrator named Oei, who recounts her vexed but loving relationship with her father. He helps liberate Oei from societally imposed gender roles but also frustrates her professional ambitions. Preternaturally determined, Oei finds in the entertainment district and vibrant culture of 19th-century Edo (now Tokyo) space to develop her artistic and sexual independence. Striking beyond that worldly milieu, she achieves a personal integrity and artistic immortality that even Hokusai does not enjoy.
Govier’s characterization of early-modern Edo and works by Katsushika Oi and Hokusai is vivid. Oei proves a compelling medium for articulating the predicaments and responses of Japanese women living in a time of social flux, and Oei tells an engrossing tale. The novel occasionally threatens a disconcerting chord: esoteric burials and courtesans practicing martial arts suggest a lingering fascination with an exotic Orient. However, these features, like the novel’s narrative conceit, also vivify such historical phenomena as Edo urbanites’ taste for ghost stories and staged beauty.
Reviewer Walter Davis is an Assistant Professor of Chinese and Japanese art history in the U of A’s Department of Art and Design and the department of East Asian Studies.