Books

Mark Henshaw
The Snow Kimono

We begin Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono in Paris in 1989 with retired police inspector Auguste Jovert. Jovert is a terse man, friendless and haunted by his past in Algiers. He’s just received a letter from a daughter he didn’t know he had.

Jovert is soon being told stories by his neighbour, the vaguely creepy retired law professor Tadashi Omura, about his early life in Japan and about his friend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda.

These three men have done awful things and now, towards the end of their lives, they cannot escape the ripples and echoes. The stories and the lies that they tell themselves and each other are interwoven and the novel jumps chronologically, and by narrator, and between Paris, Japan and Algeria.

As a bald retelling of the plot, this sounds messy and fragmented. There is an inherent distancing to stories within stories about third parties, which might have proved fatal in another book. The Snow Kimono, though, is more than the sum of its parts.

The saviour here is Henshaw’s prose. It’s luminous and crisp, like the snowy countryside of Japan or the barren lanes of Algiers, and the effect is instead trancelike. As the stories fold inside one another like poetic Russian dolls, I’m drawn closer to the heart of it all. This is Jovert, but it could as well have been any of these men:

He had finally begun to piece things together, make sense of it. This is what you did, at sixty-three, or seventy, or seventy-three. You looked back, contemplated what had happened. Six months ago, he had felt that his life was over. Except for the final reckoning, there would be nothing new. But he had been wrong.

When I finished The Snow Kimono, I raised my head, vaguely surprised that I was at home, in familiar surrounds, and it was still daylight outside. I turned straight back to page one and began again. That never happens to me. I began this novel again less for the twists and turns of the plot, though, than for the magnificent scenery along the way and for the depths the novel invokes.

Henshaw’s debut novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, and we’ve heard little from him for the past 25 years.

I hope he doesn’t make us wait so long next time.  LS

Text, 416pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Mark Henshaw, The Snow Kimono ". Subscribe here.