In 1865, nine-year-old Aurelia Caillard sails across the ocean, leaving behind her dying mother and the familiar terrain of New York City for the unknown world of Japan, in the charge of her uncle Charles, a Catholic priest on assignment to Japan. Not long after arriving, a series of events send Aurelia fleeing into the dark night of Kyoto and into service of a renowned tea master family. Now an elderly woman, Aurelia revisits her youth, leading the reader/listener through a time in which Japan experienced tumultuous change. A gifted student of languages, Aurelia quickly absorbs what she hears, though she is considered simple because she is not fluent in Japanese when she joins the tea master’s household. Tensions between cultural expectations and the changing times mount as the story reaches its climax. Despite Aurelia’s many years in Japan, she is never truly considered much more than a foreigner, even to Yukako, the woman she serves and adores. Another jarring event will force Aurelia to make a difficult decision about her place in the world.
The Teahouse Fire is full of linguistic flavors and communication challenges, making it a perfect audio-tale. It’s in great hands with narrator Barbara Caruso. She guides listeners on a wonderful journey, back in time to the changing landscape of late 19th/early 20th century Japan and New York. She provides Aurelia’s mother with French-accented English that avoids sounding exaggerated. When Barbara speaks as Aurelia, I’m reminded of Audrey Hepburn’s accent and diction. Language-wise, a really fascinating part of Aurelia’s journey involves veering away from the language she was born with to the point she finds it a stranger in her middle age. As Aurelia disembarks from the crowded cityscape of New York, Barbara skillfully alternates between clear characterizations of the men and women who people the periphery and inner sanctum of the tea world. The range of tone, inflection, pitch, and pace are reflected in the voices of the people as they navigate complex social interactions. The overall effect is engaging, making it difficult to press the pause button.
Aural enrichment of the novel: Traditional Japanese music plays during pivotal scenes. The instruments don’t barge into a moment, disrupting scenes and moods; rather, they mark key moments and guide listeners through transitions. It’s a wonderful supplement to the listening experience.
I highly recommend this listening experience, especially for listeners who enjoy transport to other shores and other times; revel in historical fiction; possess a keen interest in exploring culture and language; and savor tales that unfold over decades.
Available as an audiobook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors. Be sure to check your local library for copies, too. I listened to it as a library eAudiobook via OverDrive.