Book: The Teahouse Fire
by Review by Olive Demetrius
October 10, 2010
Set in late 19th-century Japan, Ellis Avery's first novel follows Aurelia Cornielle, a French orphan, who narrates the story of how she lived and loved in a rapidly Westernizing Japan. One fervent wish at an altar in a foreign city catapults her into a life she could have never imagined—"Any life but this one." Aurelia finds herself the servant and "younger sister" of Yukako, the daughter of the Shin household where the temae, or The Way of Tea, shapes their everyday reality.

This story personalizes Japan at this time in history without going over the top. The voice of Aurelia gives texture and meaning to the time and place. Each gesture, expression, and turn of phrase is described in such detail that it is imbued with compelling sensuality. This is doubly apparent in the deliberate ritual of tea.

Avery gently draws the reader to empathize with Aurelia's desires for love and acceptance. Aurelia's place within their household is strengthened by her abject admiration of Yukako. In turn Yukako loves Aurelia for her way of asking questions that no one else would. The love that Yukako feels is described as the love of a vassal. Aurelia, or Miss Urako as she is now called, has a more complex feeling for her mistress.  The moment when it changes from platonic love to desire is dealt with in a subtle, almost unassuming way. It wavers between a desire to be as strong as her and a strong desire to be with her. That is not to say that there is a cop-out when it comes to same-sex desire. It is a part of Aurelia like any other part.

The character Avery powerfully created is both observer and participant within a respected Japanese household. Aurelia's is a western mind in a Japanese frame. Avery seems to draw to parallel her experience with the country's struggles to reconcile its past and its less-than-certain future. Aurelia is an atypical fish out of water who never felt completely at home in either environment.

A multiple award-winner, The Tea-house Fire is a strong and fascinating story from a talented voice. 
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