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.
The New Yorker
Like the gardens of its title, this début novel is an exquisite conundrum, replete with ghosts and hiding places.
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.
The novel's drawback is the muting of the characters' feelings, their emotions never allowed to break through the elegant prose. Nonetheless, an engaging and unique novel.
It is no wonder that Walbert is the recipient of the Pushcart and O'Henry prizes. She is a powerful storyteller who delivers the enexpected with great gentleness. Highly recommended.
Amy Bloom; author of A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
Kate Walbert's fine, delicate prose captures voices that we don't hear much anymore, and she guides us from past to present, and from death to life, with affectionate detail and deep understanding. The Gardens of Kyoto is a ghost story, a mystery, a love story, and an intentionally modest chronicle of the middle part of this past century.
Edna O'Brien; author of Wild Decembers
A fine debut novel -- a strong story, written with the grace and poignancy that hindsight brings.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Gabrielle Renoir-Large A Beautiful, Haunting Book, Too Little Known One might think that a book titled “The Gardens of Kyoto” would be set in Japan, but such is not the case with Kate Walbert’s hauntingly beautiful debut novel. Instead, this lovely book wends its way from a brick mansion in Baltimore, Maryland to a... Read More
Rated of 5
by Constance Murray
A cacophany of characters populate this mysterious tale. I was mesmerized by when and how they appeared. Walbert skips from here to there, from now to then in relating to her daughter a stream of consciousness of imagings of what her daughter... Read More
Transcendent stories: about the uncertain gestures of love, about the betrayals and gifts of the body, about the surprises and bounties of the heart, and about what comes to us unbidden and what we choose.
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