The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy



Filed under Fiction, Henshaw Mark

18 responses to “The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

  1. This sounds really good. I like the entire stories within stories approach. It seems to me that this is a reflection of reality when one examines the history of people’s lives and relationships.

  2. Hypnotic is a good choice of word to describe the experience of reading this book. I enjoyed it immensely maybe because of that quality..

  3. I’ll go with you on ‘contrived’ for this one. I started it with enthusiasm but became increasingly alienated. I thought it was overwritten and straining for effect, e.g. “Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat”. Its power comes from the setting and the drawing on Japanese tradition and history, but it’s so self-consciously doing that it lost me.

  4. Does he comment on Inspector “Javert” from Les Miserables. I think I have that right. Judging from your last paragraph, there seem to be some thematic links with Hugo’s book.

  5. I have been remiss. It’s about time I got hold of a copy of this to see what I think of it.

  6. Does it give a lot of information about Japanese traditions and culture?

    I wonder why the author chose a French man to be the counterpart of Omura in this novel.

    • I also wondered why Henshaw took the novel to Paris, but I suppose it was because of the Algeria section.
      Most readers said they enjoyed the Japanese bits the most. I wouldn’t say that it has a lot about customs in it, but I loved the bits about the jigsaw puzzles and the character Ikeda is such a douche. There’s stuff about handmade kimonos etc.

  7. Yes, I guess it is contrived but I don’t mind contrivance if I feel that the author knows what s/he’s doing, and I felt Henshaw did. I’d probably call it “stylised” rather than “contrived” I think. Anyhow I agree that it’s about the slipperiness of truth, and all you say. It’s also about the mutability of memory. I really engaged with this novel.

  8. Oh, I should add that it won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction last year – in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (if I remember correctly).

  9. This sounds really good. Diverse and a bit different too.

  10. I think the contrivance would irritate me, I was already wondering about it when you referred to it and confirmed it and my tolerance for that kind of technique isn’t always great. Plus I’m not a huge fan of puzzle narratives.

    It sounds well done though and interesting.

  11. What an interesting series of comments. I really enjoyed reading them. Thanks guys. Mark Henshaw.

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