Early in "The Gardens of Kyoto," the narrator, Ellen, sits in a diner full of young, fidgety soldiers moments before they board a train to meet their fates in World War II. Among the boys is her brilliant, luminous cousin Randall, her first love. Kate Walbert's first novel teases out the memories of Randall until the quiet tragedy of Ellen's private story takes the shape of something surprisingly large, and in this scene, Walbert subtly nudges toward that bigger place: "Too soon the feeling of leaving descended upon the place. Soldiers scraped back their chairs, stood in line to pay their checks. Everyone had the same train to catch." A generation off to war.
Ultimately, Ellen, who is telling the story to her daughter, gets at the truth, filling in the shadows of memory with retrospective wisdom and half-buried pain. History and imagination and hope meld together; at one point, her recollection of the first time she kisses Randall fades into the first time she kisses Henry, her daughter's father. Walbert writes beautiful, lyrical, endlessly detailed sentences; they are as multilayered as her plot. They can be mesmerizing, alternately captivating and lulling, and always maintain a mysterious, steadily probing air. But every so often Ellen asks a question, and it strikes bone: "Have I told you his was a beautiful smile?" You feel oddly vulnerable, as if the narrator is asking you, not her young daughter, and you almost feel compelled to reply.
"The Gardens of Kyoto" is a complicated book, yet never feels labored or wrung over; instead bits and pieces emerge from the recesses of Ellen's mind when they're ready to come out. After Randall dies in Iwo Jima, Ellen grapples with what he's left behind: his diary, letters from his absent mother, Ruby, a book called "The Gardens of Kyoto." Walbert carefully weaves the stories of the gardens, of the book's author and of Ruby's life, wrapping them all around Ellen's own tale of Henry, the handsome Korean War veteran who fathered her daughter shortly before he descended into madness.
While ostensibly "The Gardens of Kyoto" is specific to one woman's experience, Walbert also captures the collective memory of a country. Randall's house in Baltimore harbors a tiny room once intended for hiding slaves on the Underground Railroad; Ellen and Randall visit it and imagine what whispers may have been exchanged there. And there is the memory of war -- the once-proud men who return to America broken -- and are either locked up in hollow, sanitized asylums or found working at luggage stores in small towns where they can still feel like heroes.
When she retells the goodbye scene at the diner at the end of the novel, more details are filled in, but this time, Ellen has the weight of a long narrative behind her, and adds the finest moments of pure emotion. Walbert knows that the goodbye to Randall means something different when retold 200 pages later, when the reader understands what happened to Ellen after he left. Some stories, Walbert seems to say, need to be told many times to be understood.
Next: In an eagerly anticipated debut novel, a colonialist in Ceylon faces political deception, erotic intrigue and the failure of his own ideals