The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

The rigidity of Japanese society squeezes out the emotional life of this tale

Arthur Golden's 1997 bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha started something of a "geisha boom" among Western readers. Europeans were beguiled not only by the lives of these super-classy sex workers, but by the cultural exotica surrounding their closed world. Ellis Avery's debut, a historical epic set in the mid-19th century, inducts the uninitiated into one of the essential accomplishments of geishadom – the tea ceremony.

The narrator, Aurelia Bernard, is a nine-year-old American orphan shipped to Kyoto to serve as domestic help to her missionary uncle. Her miserable indenture is prematurely ended following a house fire in which the two are separated. Aurelia ends up in a small teahouse belonging to the Shins, a prominent Japanese family descended from a long line of tea masters. Kukako, the daughter, takes pity on the waif, renames her "Urako", and adopts her as a surrogate younger sister.

A Franco-American child adrift in an alien world is a promising premise, but it soon becomes clear that the author is more drawn to cultural novelties than narrative pay-offs. Aurelia manages to pass herself off as a native (her features are thought to be the result of a botched abortion), and we are immersed in a world of choreographed ritual and Oriental aesthetics. Aurelia's speedy assimilation – though realistic – leaves the reader pining for a little less interior design and more emotional crisis.

At the heart of Aurelia's new life lies the rigorous discipline of chado – the "way of tea". At the beginning it is still an art practised by an aristocratic male elite, but as the Emperor's programme of "bunmei kaika" (civilisation and enlightenment) takes hold, Kukako requests instruction in the use of tea whisks and symbolic ceramics. In one memorable passage, Kukako and Aurelia demonstrate the tea ceremony for a Western trade delegation, who fail to register the sophistication of the centuries-old "dance" before them.

Infusing this impressively imagined tableau is an unconsummated love story. With no other love object on offer, Aurelia becomes fixated on her mistress, Kukako: her small breasts, her scent "sweet and sharp, like fresh earth" and her ever-changing coiffure. A relationship with another domestic, Miss Inko, relieves the itch, but never quite replaces Aurelia's passion for her inscrutable mistress. The novel is similarly frustrating: there is a bestseller waiting to get out, but the weight of history and convention gets in the way.

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