Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Several of Kara Dalkey's novels have been set in Asian cultures. The Nightingale, Little Sister, and The Heavenward Path take place in Japan while Goa, Bijapur, and Bhagavati are set in India. Dalkey's newest novel, Genpei is an historical novel set in twelfth century Japan and her most ambitious work yet.
Genpei is a political epic set during a series of wars which wracked Japan in the latter half of the twelfth century. Dalkey tells her story through the eyes of Taira no Kiyomori and Minomoto no Yoshitomo as well as their descendents. These characters represent the powerful Taira and Minomoto clans whose feud and attempts to gain power at the expense of each other and the imperial family form the background to the political situation.
Dalkey does a magnificent job of creating believable, complex characters in a culture which is extremely foreign to twentieth century America. Nevertheless, Dalkey's characters must deal with a variety of issues, from loyalty to ambition which resonate with the modern reader.
The novel traces the rise and fall of the Taira and the fall and rise of the Minomoto. Perhaps the most intriguing character is Taira no Kiyomori, who begins the novel with the best of intentions: serving the imperial family and advancing his own clan. Slowly as the novel builds, Kiyomori becomes more and more tyrannical as he tries to hold on to the power he has achieved. Eventually, he finds ways to serve the imperial family even as he works to depose the emperor. Because Dalkey spends so much time with Kiyomori as her focal character, it isn't clear the transition is taking place despite comments by other characters. When, late in the novel, Dalkey begins to look at Kiyomori through the eyes of his wife and children, his nature becomes more obvious.
Magic plays a role throughout Genpei, although for the most part it is subtle. The magic imperial regalia exists, but its power seems to be as much as a symbol as anything else. Characters hold conversations with the gods and are advised by the spirits of the dead, but much (not all) of this communication can be explained without resorting to supernatural explanation. Dalkey brings these elements into the story skillfully without destroying the realism which pervades the novel.
Kara Dalkey manages to weave together a wide variety of themes and characters with a complex and realistic background. While some of the Japanese terms may be unfamiliar to Genpei's readers, Dalkey uses them in a manner which allows the reader to understand the words from their context. Genpei is a magnificent way to introduce yourself to Dalkey's writing. The story and characters are entrancing throughout.
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