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Book of the Week: The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

"An unusual storyteller who has extensively researched the period he skillfully brings to life, Didier Decoin dazzles with his sense of atmosphere ... The Office of Gardens and Ponds is constantly surprising and captivating. It is a world full of women, ghosts, carp, juvenile emperors and rice packers, but what emerges is a sensual and enthralling mystery" (Alexandre Fillon - JDD)



When carp-catcher Katsuro drowns in the river near Shimae, the whole village is grief-struck as its fate is on the line: indeed, Katsuro was the only fisherman in the country gifted enough to catch the best carps, who would then strive in the basins of the emperor's Imperial Palace, the source of the crucial patronage the village depends upon. His widow Miyuki has no choice but to undergo the journey herself, and to walk across the country all the way to the imperial city carrying the eight carps, in spite of the physical hardship and of all the dangers looming over a young woman traveling alone. From encountering benevolent prostitutes to avoiding the monstrous kappas and being tricked by greedy monks, she will need to learn not to trust appearances and to solely depend on herself to succeed. Luckily enough, she can count on the unspoken, immaterial presence of her husband, who seems to guide her through trials and keep her safe.


The first part of the novel, the widow's journey is also an ode to the beauty of nature and to the variety of the Japan landscape. It also pays tribute to rural folklore and legends. The second part, however, is a subtle critique of the ways of the court, as well as a beautiful exploration of the refined imperial culture, from the birth of the Japanese novel to the art of perfumes, since Miyuki's arrival coincides with a perfume contests whose theme is the scent of a young woman passing over a bridge, half-seen in the mist. The uncanny coincidence is perfect to bestow upon the widow's journey a sense of fulfillment, and to make her the embodiment and the tool of reconciliation of the two aspects of Japan previously explored in the novel.


It took Didier Decoin 12 years to write the novel, in part because of the prodigious and thorough research he conducted to recreate the Heian-era Japan environment and culture. Manuel Carcassonne called the novel a “complete immersion into another world.” The writing is very sensual, focusing on the flesh, smells and sights of the world depicted. Decoin's mastery of the history and customs of the period is remarkable, as is his clear infatuation for his young heroine, whose stubbornness and delicacy make her highly endearing.


"A delicate spread of impressions, combining sensuality, adventure and the supernatural" (Marie Rogatien - Le Figaro Magazine)


The Office of Gardens and Ponds is published by Maclehose Press and it was translated by Euan Cameron.


French writer Didier Decoin won the Goncourt Prize in 1977 for his novel John L’Enfer. As a scenarist, he has worked with directors such as Maroun Bagdadi: their movie Hors-la-vie won the Jury Prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. He has also adapted Victor Hugo classics such as Les Misérables (with Gérard Depardieu, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jeanne Moreau) and The Count of Monte Cristo (with Gérard Depardieu and Jean Rochefort) for the TV. Didier Decoin is the secretary of the prestigious Académie Goncourt. His most recent novel, The Office of Gardens and Ponds, is out with MacLehose Press this year.


After a long career as a publisher – he worked for the London office of the University Presses of Chicago, Columbia and Yale, The Bodley Head and Barrie & Jenkins, – Euan Cameron went on to earn his living as a book reviewer and literary journalist before returning to publishing part-time as an editor at Harvill and Random House. He has translated over thirty books from French. He was appointed Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011. He lives in London. His many translations from French include books by Simone de Beauvoir, Julien Green, Paul Morand, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, Jean-Michel Guenassia, Philippe Claudel and Patrick Modiano, as well as biographies of Marcel Proust and Irène Némirovsky.


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