Summary and book reviews of The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert

The Gardens of Kyoto

A Novel

By Kate Walbert

The Gardens of Kyoto
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2001,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2002,
    288 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Chapter One

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The stark simplicity of the novel's opening lines, "I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?" belie the intensity of the narrator's feelings for Randall which only slowly come into focus as the novel unfolds. How do the secrets the two shared and the wrenching loss she experiences after the tragic death of her first love shadow Ellen's life and all her relationships? Why does Ellen keep repeating "I didn't know him too well"? How is that statement true -- or untrue? The chaste friendship between the cousins depicted in the novel's early pages contrasts sharply with Ellen's later memory? fantasy? of their lovemaking: "I feel his tongue, warm, and want to pull my hand away but I do not want to at all...He has ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The New Yorker

Like the gardens of its title, this début novel is an exquisite conundrum, replete with ghosts and hiding places.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Booklist

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.

Library Journal

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.

Author Blurb 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.

Author Blurb Edna O'Brien; author of Wild Decembers
A fine debut novel -- a strong story, written with the grace and poignancy that hindsight brings.

Reader Reviews
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

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 might...   Read More

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