The Teahouse Fire provides an illuminating account of the lives of generations of Japan’s most important tea masters. American author Ellis Avery studied Japanese tea ceremony in the United States and Japan before writing this novel replete with fascinating details of the Japanese tea ceremony, Chado, or The Way of Tea. Although I read this 400-page book several months ago, its celebration of detail, beauty, and history resonated with me so much that I have created a list of Japanese vocabulary that I am reluctant to forget.
Through the eyes of a young French-American orphan, Aurelia Bernard, the audience meets the Shin family, descendants of a long line of tea masters. The family adopts her as a part-time servant and part-time sister to Yukako, the daughter of Master Shin. Through her friendship with her older sister, Aurelia—now called Urako—learns temae (a specific way of practicing tea), albeit indirectly. As a female, Yukako is not allowed to practice tea in public or as a ritual, but is permitted to watch her father—“The Mountain”—teach temae to his students. Fortunately, for Aurelia, Yukako teaches her from the hundreds of lessons she has been allowed to watch.
As an outsider and a female, Aurelia is doubly lucky to learn about (if not directly experience) all the facets of the tea ceremony and Japanese life, including temae; the rise and fall of the Japanese nobility and Shoguns; the floating world; geiko; seppuku; shamisen music; and all the details that are required for a successful tea ceremony. Through the tea ceremonies, Aurelia learns the subtle nuances of movements that are never wasted and decorations that are always vivid, but never superfluous. She learns that entire conversations can occur during the silent sipping of tea. Do I recommend this novel? Absolutely; I recommend it for its historical relevancy, feminist spirit, and offering of minimalist beauty.