Wednesday, January 28, 2009
THE COMMONER by John Burnham Schwartz
I read mixed reviews of THE COMMONER before picking it up. The subject matter intrigued me. THE COMMONER is a work of fiction that is loosely based on the life of Empress Michiko who rose to the throne in 1989. The Empress was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family. The imperial family is naturally very private and little is known about its innerworkings. This book imagines what it would have been like for a commoner entering the imperial life.
The book opens with a description of the early life of Haruko as a commoner. I felt that the book took a long time to get going. Haruko doesn't marry the Crown Prince until halfway through the book. However, it may have been important to set the stage so that the reader would understand how very much Haruko's life changed when she became a royal. The novel itself is very quiet and slow-moving. The pace was almost glacial. This became important, however, in conveying the oppressive nature of royal life. Haruko struggles to reconcile her former self with her royal self and experiences mixed and often tragic results.
One moment I found especially heartbreaking was when Haruko's baby is forcibly weaned from her without her consent. As a mother who had to involuntarily wean her own baby, this broke my heart. In all of the splendor and opulence of courtly life, Haruko loses those things most important to her. Including her true sense of self.
While this isn't a particularly exciting novel, it is extremely thought-provoking. It forces the reader to think about what decision you would make in the same situation. Would you give up everything you knew for love? Or to experience royal life or fame? Would it be worth it?
Although difficult to get through, I recommend this novel because it will leave you thinking about a great many things and, perhaps, with a greater appreciation for the small freedoms and pleasures of everyday life.