Exceeding the promise of her New York Times Notable Book debut, Kate Walbert brings her prizewinning "painter's eye and poet's voice" (The Hartford Courant) to a mesmerizing story of war, romance, and grief.
I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?
So begins Kate Walbert's beautiful and heart-breaking novel about a young woman, Ellen, coming of age in the long shadow of World War II. Forty years later she relates the events of this period, beginning with the death of her favorite cousin, Randall, with whom she had shared Easter Sundays, secrets, and, perhaps, love. In an isolated, aging Maryland farmhouse that once was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Randall had grown up among ghosts: his father, Sterling, present only in body; his mother, dead at a young age; and the apparitions of a slave family. When Ellen receives a package after Randall's death, containing his diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto, her bond to him is cemented, and the mysteries of his short life start to unravel.
The narrative moves back and forth between Randall's death in 1945 and the autumn six years later, when Ellen meets Lieutenant Henry Rock at a college football game on the eve of his departure for Korea. But it soon becomes apparent that Ellen's memory may be distorting reality, altered as it is by a mix of imagination and disappointment, and that the truth about Randall and Henry -- and others -- may be hidden. With lyrical, seductive prose, Walbert spins several parallel stories of the emotional damage done by war. Like the mysterious arrangements of the intricate sand, rock, and gravel gardens of Kyoto, they gracefully assemble into a single, rich mosaic.
Based on a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winning story, this masterful first novel establishes Walbert as a writer of astonishing elegance and power.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
"I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you " So begins this ethereal debut novel, a romantic, bittersweet tale set in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, by short-story writer Walbert (Where She Went), a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize-winner. Walbert's protagonist is Ellen, a shy, sensitive and somewhat lost young woman who is completely enraptured by her cousin Randall, a bookish boy with red hair just like Ellen's. As a child, Ellen sees Randall only once a year, at Easter, but she is so in love with him that her infatuation affects every relationship she has in the years following his early death. After Randall is killed, his father sends Ellen a package containing Randall's diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto. In elegant, restrained prose, Walbert recounts how Ellen slowly pieces together Randall's life and unknowingly links it to her own, her fixation infiltrating every aspect of her existence. Even when she falls in love again, with a thoughtful young lieutenant named Henry stationed in Korea, her relationship is half make-believe: she intercepts the letters Henry writes to her friend Daphne and often finds herself picturing Henry as Randall. Walbert writes delicately on weighty themes, making a lyrical examination of the war's effect on men and women and on unrequited love. This is a haunting, thoughtful work that, without lapsing into clich, depicts the sad realities of love and war. (Apr. 2) Forecast: With its beautiful cover (evocative of Memoirs of a Geisha) and dreamy title, this book will do well as a selection for higher-end women's reading groups, though it may be a bit lofty for some. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
February 25, 2002
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert
I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you? The last man killed on the island, they said; killed after the fighting had ceased and the rest of the soldiers had already been transported away to hospitals or to bodybags. Killed mopping up. That's what they called it. A mopping-up operation.
I remember Mother sat down at the kitchen table when she read the news. It came in the form of a letter from Randall's father, Great-Uncle Sterling, written in hard dark ink, the letters slanted and angry as if they were aware of the meaning of the words they formed. I was in the kitchen when Mother opened it and I took the letter and read it myself. It said that Randall was presumed dead, though they had no information of the whereabouts of his body; that he had reported to whomever he was intended to report to after the surrender of the Japanese, that he had, from all accounts, disappeared.
I didn't know him too well but had visited him as a young girl. They lived across the bay from Baltimore, outside Sudlersville. No town, really, just a crossroad and a post office and farms hemmed in by cornfields. Theirs was a large brick house set far back from the road, entirely wrong for that landscape, like it had been hauled up from Savannah or Louisville to prove a point. It stood in constant shadow at the end of an oak-lined drive and I remember our first visit, how we drove through that tunnel of oak slowly, the day blustery, cool. Sterling was not what we in those days called jovial. His wife had died years before, leaving him, old enough to be a grandfather, alone to care for his only child. He had long rebuked Mother's invitations but for some reason had scrawled a note in his Christmas card that year -- this was before the war, '39 or '40 -- asking us to join them for Easter dinner.
Mother wore the same Easter hat and spring coat she kept in tissue in the back of the hallway linen closest, but she had sewed each of us a new Easter dress and insisted Daddy wear a clean shirt and tie. For him this was nothing short of sacrifice. Rita said he acted like those clothes might shatter if he breathed.