These four novels, which span four countries and cultures, are all in their different ways impressively accomplished debuts. The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer is a sweeping historical drama which unfolds in nineteenth-century Japan during the civil war that brought about the violent end of its feudal society. The story follows the fortunes of Sachi, a young peasant girl who, owing to her extraordinary beauty, is plucked out of an obscure village to live at the Women’s Palace in Edo, and goes on to become the favourite concubine of the last Shogun to rule Japan. The author, who lived in Japan for many years, has published non-fiction accounts of the lives of the geishas, and capitalises on recent Western interest in their esoteric, vanished world with her detailed depiction of Sachi’s life in the rarefied harem. This is a conventional romance, albeit a superior one, and as such the characters are sketchily drawn stereotypes, and the narrative is predictable in spite of the action-packed plot, which has Sachi fleeing the palace and living among a band of renegade Samurai. The romance is given a slight twist because the concept of romantic love didn’t exist in feudal Japan, but all ends happily in marriage as we know it. While this novel doesn’t transcend the clichés of the genre it is fluently written, and the political events, battles, customs, minutiae of daily life and even the weather have all been meticulously researched to recreate Japan in the 1860s.
Dan Vyleta’s Pavel & I, set in occupied Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, is an altogether more complex and ambitious novel, which plays upon the tensions between fiction and history. In the opening chapters,