A cornucopia of stories, woven intricately together by one exquisite painting, flows throughout Nina Schuyler's debut novel, each one dependent on the other, yet shining on its own. The Painting opens in Japan in 1870, when the country was beginning to cast off its centuries of isolation and open itself to western influence. Hayashi, a crippled potter who now exports his bowls to France, and his young wife Ayoshi, who struggles to maintain her loveless, arranged marriage, live just outside Tokyo. Ayoshi privately mourns the loss of her lover, Urashi, and their baby, whom her father forced her to abort. Her paintings of herself and Urashi, done in secret and kept hidden, somehow alleviate her grief and allow her to navigate the sad reality her life has become.
On the other side of the world, Jorgen, a Danish soldier and volunteer for France in the Franco-Prussian War, is running from his own failures at home. After losing a leg in battle, he hunkers down in Paris, taking a job with Pierre, the brother of one of his fallen comrades, in his black market enterprise. There, while unwrapping one of Hayashi's bowls, Jorgen discovers a delicately rendered painting of two Japanese lovers. Drawn by the beauty of the painting and its emotional message, Jorgen stashes it away, never telling Pierre of its existence.
Schuyler deftly employs her secondary characters to represent opposing views a young Buddhist monk descends on Hayashi and Ayoshi's home and secretly holds ancient Buddhist ceremonies there at the same time another guest extols the virtues of casting off the past in favor of commerce with the burgeoning markets of the West. And in Paris, Jorgen's boss Pierre gets rich from his sleazy business ventures while his sister, whom he calls a "dangerous idealist," joins the army to support her country's cause.
Ultimately, all are affected in various ways by the painting Ayoshi has so carefully dispatched to the new world, a world she eventually joins. Packed with historic detail and musings on the bond between emotions and artistic endeavor, Schuyler's novel is an illuminating and sensitive debut.
Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.