PERSONAL: Born in Japan.
ADDRESSES: Home—Honolulu, HI.
CAREER: Employed at a Buddhist temple.
Cloud of Sparrows, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Takashi Matsuoka left Japan as a child and was raised in the United States. As an adult, he worked at a Buddhist temple and settled in Hawaii before writing his first novel, Cloud of Sparrows. The work opens at the start of 1861 in Japan. Centuries of isolation are breaking down as Western nations seek contact with Japan, along with the economic and political advantages of a new frontier. With contact, though, comes conflict, as the traditional Japanese culture of shoguns and feudal power clashes with Western culture and military might. Warships from various countries sit menacingly in the harbor at Edo even as merchant ships come and go. American missionaries Rev. Zephaniah Cromwell, his young wife-to-be Emily Gibson, and Matthew Stark arrive to start a Christian mission. They are received as guests by Lord Genji, a nobleman with shrinking fortunes but still-considerable prestige derived from his family's samurai history. Genji is no samurai—many consider him simply a womanizer and dilettante—but he believes he has the gift of prophecy that is supposed to come to one male in each generation. Genji's samurai uncle Shigaru carries the gift for his generation, but his visions are often more like psychotic hallucinations than harbingers of the future. Genji's visions and predictions, while not as vivid and outrageous, are equally terrifying.
An attack on Genji's life occurs shortly after the missionaries' arrival, which results in the death of Cromwell and adds urgency to Genji's visions of his own death. Genji and the missionaries, along with Shigaru and Genji's beautiful geisha companion Heiko, leave Edo and flee to the titular Cloud of Sparrows castle.
But the cast of characters holds secrets. Stark is a gunslinger posing as a missionary, while Emily is fleeing from a tumultuous and haunted past. Heiko may or may not be a spy for the head of the secret police, who made the assassination attempt on Genji's life. At Cloud of Sparrows castle, each character must face their past and deal with the present, while cultures grind together, ancient ways of life are extinguished, loyalties are questioned, and the future of Japan and the characters themselves becomes increasingly uncertain. "As in so many journey stories, the trip, not the destination, is the story," remarked John Davis in on the Decatur Daily Online.
A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that "Matsuoka's ambitious first novel is an epic saga of clashing personalities and ideologies in the tradition of Shogun, yet it distinguishes itself from its wide-eyed predecessor with a grimmer perspective on Japan's military culture." Margaret Flanagan, writing in Booklist, remarked that "Matsuoka effortlessly introduces the reader to mysterious Japanese customs, rituals, and traditions."
In Kirkus Reviews, a critic noted inconsistencies in the story and remarked on "pedestrian wisdom" and "nonwriting." Matsuoka "does not have the weapons to handle the morass he's created here," the critic wrote. However, other reviewers commented specifically on the quality of Matsuoka's writing. The book's "rich details and Matsuoka's strong sense of both character and narrative kept me turning the pages right to the very end," wrote Gary Whitehouse on the Green Man Review Web site. "Cloud of Sparrows is a rewarding read for anyone who likes historical novels, westerns, or sword-and-ninja tales," Whitehouse concluded. Burlingame commented that "What lifts Cloud of Sparrows out of the romantic/adventure genre is the pure eloquence of the writing,"
Davis's comments were even more direct: "Matsuoka is a fine writer," the critic remarked. "He can convey not only the clear vision of the places he describes in the faraway East of Japan, monasteries, fortresses, strange garb, and stranger people, but he also can place the reader in the midst of mystery."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 2002, review of Cloud of Sparrows, p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of Cloud ofSparrows, p. 1167.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 2002, review of Cloud of Sparrows, p. 273.
Green Man Review,http://www.greenmanreview.com/ (December 5, 2002), Gary Whitehouse, review of Cloud of Sparrows.
Random House of Canada Web site,http://www.randomhouse.ca/ (December 5, 2002).