Lian Hearn: The Tale of Genji for the Potter generation

Cool, calm and deadly: Suzi Feay meets bestselling crossover author Lian Hearn
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The Independent Culture

The final volume in a trilogy is always a difficult proposition, even when the author concerned hasn't set the bar absurdly high. But Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor and Grass for his Pillow were astonishingly good. "Oriental Harry Potter", as its hero Takeo was instantly dubbed, doesn't come near it. For beauty and power, Hearn's prose is peerless. Then there was the fiendishly complicated plot to be tied up. How was Takeo going to fulfil his destiny, avenge the murder of his adoptive father, Shigeru, and win his beautiful but deadly bride Kaede?

The final volume in a trilogy is always a difficult proposition, even when the author concerned hasn't set the bar absurdly high. But Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor and Grass for his Pillow were astonishingly good. "Oriental Harry Potter", as its hero Takeo was instantly dubbed, doesn't come near it. For beauty and power, Hearn's prose is peerless. Then there was the fiendishly complicated plot to be tied up. How was Takeo going to fulfil his destiny, avenge the murder of his adoptive father, Shigeru, and win his beautiful but deadly bride Kaede?

Yet Brilliance of the Moon didn't disappoint. The magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aspects may have diminished as the story developed, but the complexity of the society and the subtlety of characterisation made up for that. Kaede is wrested from the hands of the appalling Lord Fujiwara, and the lovers are reunited. I relished the finely balanced, bittersweet ending. Surely we haven't heard the last of Takeo and Kaede...

"I'm writing a prequel, about Shigeru and Lady Maruyama," Hearn confirms, referring to the tragic lovers of the first book. "It tells about how they met, and the battle of Yaegahara, and all the things he tells Takeo about during book one. And then I'm writing a final book, just to tie things up. I want to move on and look at the society Takeo and Kaede create, and how they manage to sustain something that's more free."

The books are set in a sort of fantasy medieval Japan, which gives Hearn the freedom to play around with the historical record, and yet to evoke, exquisitely, Japan's rich culture, traditions and landscape. You can tell as you read that her rapport with the country goes very deep indeed - perhaps over more than one lifetime.

"I've been interested in Japan for a long time," she says, "since I was quite young, and I've got no idea where that came from." British born, she moved to Australia to bring up a family, and as Gillian Rubenstein, she's well-known there as a writer for children. "I wanted to set my third children's book in Japan and I went there on a school trip with my daughter - she was about 14 at the time. As soon as I got there, I thought, oh, I'm sure I've been here before. It was a very strange feeling. The landscape seemed familiar, curling up on a futon seemed the most natural way in the world to sleep, and I made lots of friends. I became something of a castle junkie - I went to every single castle I could find, and a lot of temples. I just kept thinking about the sort of people who might have lived in the places I was visiting, and the character of Takeo came into my head, and his voice, and then I became obsessed with trying to tell that story."

The first book was published by Macmillan in 2002 and aimed at both the children and adult markets. While the story may take some folkloric elements - the orphaned boy with magical powers plucked out from obscurity and adopted into the nobility - rape, torture, homosexuality, misogyny, sadism, religious persecution and brutal, martial oppression are not exactly standard fare in children's fiction. It helps that the lurid subject matter is presented in luminous prose; and that it isn't at all sensationalised. "That was one thing I was after," Hearn says thoughtfully, "to get that matter-of-fact acceptance of sexuality. I think it was very common among young men of that period in Japan to have casual sexual relationships with each other. I don't know what teenagers make of that."

Looking to classics like The Tale of Genji ("The most wonderful book, possibly the world's first novel and written by a woman!") and the films of Kurosawa for inspiration, she wrote all three books at once before showing anyone. Because the new project was so strikingly different to anything she had written before, she craved a new name. "It was because I was so well-known in Australia - not so well known as Jacqueline Wilson, say, but imagine if she suddenly decided to write crime fiction for adults. I hate doing author publicity, and it was great to be able to say, 'I can't do it because Lian Hearn doesn't exist'," she laughs.

Finally, I ask her about, for me, the most striking element of her books: the crystalline prose. Does she consciously write "beautifully"? "No, God forbid! I just try to write as clearly as I can and to visualise everything. I'm also very interested in the rhythm in the sentences. I never think of it as beautiful writing... I think of it as rather spare."

Phew! I have to say that Lian/Gillian in interview has been every bit as reserved and controlled as the glacial Kaede. But about a week later I bump into her by accident, and she rushes over to hug me, with a beaming smile.

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