The Rambling Writer Book Review: The Kimono Tattoo by Rebecca Copeland

Compelling characters, intriguing mysteries, and immersion in Japanese art and culture propel this lovely novel.

I’ve been reading several books selected by the International Pulpwood Queens & Timber Guys Book Club, now that my Book View Cafe novel Pause has been chosen as a 2022 title. I just had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca Copeland via a book club Zoom, and she’s a smart and curious world traveler and professor of Japanese literature.

From the first page, Copeland’s protagonist Ruth Bennett guides us with a firm voice through the streets of Kyoto, Japan, while weaving in fascinating insights into its arts and culture. Copeland, like her creation Ruth, was born in Japan to missionary parents, and has spent extended periods there as an adult. She also teaches Japanese literature and has learned some of the traditional dances that are featured tangentially in the novel. Front and center in the story is the art of the kimono with its complex designs, both traditional and modern.

Ruth Bennett, although born and raised in Japan and obviously fluent in the language, will forever be an “outsider” as a Caucasian born to American parents. That novelistic choice makes for a terrific character to introduce us to the history and culture, as well as providing tension for Ruth’s interactions with other characters. Working as a translator, Ruth unwittingly is drawn into a dangerous mystery when she accepts the job of translating the start of what appears to be a novel by a famous Japanese novelist who disappeared years earlier and is presumed dead. In the early pages of the document, a description of a drowned woman whose nude body is covered in intricate tattoos representing a flesh kimono raises Ruth’s hackles and curiosity.

I hope to avoid spoilers about the plot, which is as intricate as the different kimono designs that feature in the novel, but suffice it to say that mysteries – both past and present – proliferate as Ruth pursues answers that lead her into danger. Along the way, she’s assisted by a wonderful collection of quirky characters, including another notorious novelist known for her collection of young “boy toys.” A clever foil for Ruth is Maho, a young Japanese translator who spent her youth in southern California, and who feels equally a stranger back in Kyoto. Maho sports a dyed mohawk and numerous tattoos, and she guides Ruth into the world of tattoos as both traditional and modern art.

The pace is appropriately page-turning and the mysteries suspenseful, but my favorite passages are those that lovingly describe the arts of kimono design and wearing, as well as traditional dance and tattooing. And I felt I was walking beside Ruth through the charming lanes of neighborhoods graced with the Japanese aesthetic of nature enhanced with restrained human artifice. The descriptions of domestic habits in placing shoes in entryways, the bathing rituals, and delicious meals all add to the immersion in this fascinating world.

Copeland is working on another novel set in Japan, and I can’t wait to armchair travel with her again!

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Café is Pause, First Place winner of the Chanticleer Somerset Award and an International Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection. “A must-read novel about friendship, love, and killer hot flashes.” (Mindy Klasky). Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

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