This review was first published in The Guardian Australia.
One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.
Moving the action forward with achingly poetic sentences, the writing in The Snow Kimono – Mark Henshaw’s first novel in 25 years, since the critically acclaimed Out of the Line of Fire – often echoes the fabulist prose of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, a quote from whose If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler begins the book. There’s also a concentrated quietness in the tone that echoes the philosophical nature of the mystery – at once the realm of the lone east Asian poet, making his way down the narrow road to the interior, as well as theEuropean diarist, wandering aimlessly through a lamp-lit street.
The novel’s plot is difficult to summarise without giving anything away but it is this very complexity – as well as the cascading structure, out of the lives of the Japanese women, one of whom owns the snow kimono of the title – that makes it gripping.
Like a Japanese puzzle, prized for their infinite solutions and depth of revelation, each chapter builds on the one before, unfolding through levels of story to unpack deeper and deeper truths. And as the novel clicks into place like the final move in a himitsu-bako, it’s clear that The Snow Kimono is not simply a novel about mysteries but a metaphor for the nature of storytelling.
“But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve,” thinks Jovert while reminiscing about his career in the French territorial police in Algiers. “What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”
In Australian fiction, there has been a recent interest among novelists in the interrogation of storytelling itself. A writer, at the end of the day, is a philosopher. To be questioning the validity of her art as well as the views of her society is part of a writer’s job. It would be easy to read Henshaw as using Jovert and The Snow Kimono as a metaphor for his own autumn, as both the author and the character move into the next stages of their lives.
But, much more provocatively, this could also be a case of the novelist abandoning linear, objective-driven logic for more open-ended philosophical structures, raising the question of what aesthetic progression we are heading towards, what kind of humanity we are seeking as a society, and what kind of moral constructions we wish to exist.
Whatever the answer, Henshaw has chosen the perfect vehicle within which to examine these questions. After a career as a crime writer and curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw’s ability to combine such cultural and aesthetic diversity in his fiction is not only an example of what a period of dedicated study can do, but a marker of his ability as a writer.