Thoughts of James Clavell's Shogun come to mind on first reading this novel set in 19th-century Japan. The hero, Thomas Glover, is the alpha male of his day, making his fortune in a violent country and breaking the hearts of a few geishas on the way.
Although he sounds like the hero of blockbusters, Glover is in fact largely responsible for propelling feudal Japan into the modern world. Arriving in Nagasaki in 1859 as a 21-year-old from Aberdeen employed by a British company, he traded his way to a fortune. He founded the shipbuilding industry, built the first railway, and involved himself in Japanese politics.
He supplied arms to rival clans and helped them overthrow the reactionary shogun. He also inspired the story of Madame Butterfly, when a geisha committed suicide after losing her son to him. There has already been a biography of Glover, The Scottish Samurai by Alex McKay. Novelist and poet Alan Spence says his intention was to write "a work of the imagination", while making the background as accurate as possible. Spence has done his homework thoroughly, on the intricacies of clan rivalries, and the resentful relationship between Japanese and foreigners as the country emerged painfully from isolation into the pressures of the modern world.
He also illuminates the irony of Nagasaki's eventual fate when it was bombed by the Allies in 1945. The city had become a prime target because of its shipbuilding industry. In the prologue, Glover's half-Japanese son, now elderly, witnesses the destruction of the city his father made prosperous. This is a more successful time-slip than a penultimate scene which has a young couple in 2005 - he Scottish, she Japanese - pondering the fate of Madame Butterfly as they tour Glover's house, now a museum. Despite the author's intention of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, there are times when you sense the indigestion brought on by chewing too many of them. The scenes of battle have a feeling of a pageant - a lot of action but no involvement.
Spence never really gets into his protagonist's head. Glover may have been a man of action rather than reflection but the point of fiction is to know what is going on inside as well as outside. Too often, The Pure Land reads like a dramatised documentary, which no doubt it will become one fine day.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by ArrowReuse content