"The Snow Fox" by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Love, poetry and severed heads on pikes: A novel with some of the majesty of "Cold Mountain" immerses you in the complex social world -- and heinous cruelty -- of medieval Japan.

By Laura Miller
Published March 8, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

"Lord Norimasa studied two things," it is said of the warlord who dominates the lives of the characters in Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's new novel of medieval Japan: "battle and the doings of women ... 'They are both the same thing,'" Norimasa explains. "'Although a strategy for a war is simpler than seeing through the schemes of a woman. I read books on strategy, but I sharpen my mind trying to understand women.'"

Like "Cold Mountain," "The Snow Fox" is a rich mixture of love story, battle saga and odyssey, and like Charles Frazier, Schaeffer aims to steep her readers in the rhythms and mentality of a lost way of life. But the world that Lord Norimasa presides over is both more sophisticated and more brutal than the Civil-War-era South. Norimasa is a prince Machiavelli would have admired, both a subtle arbiter of poetry contests and the kind of man who says, after he's forced an enemy's severed head onto a pike so hard the point breaks through the top of the skull, "Is there a more lovely sound on earth?"

The two lovers at the center of "The Snow Fox" are members of Norimasa's court, his former (perhaps) paramour, the Lady Utsu, and his young right-hand man, the samurai Matsuhito. When Utsu and Matsuhito first meet, at Norimasa's palace, she has a reputation for three things: great talent as a poet, surpassing beauty, and cruelty toward her suitors. Not all of the latter is her fault -- she is still recovering from having killed a man at the orders of Lord Norimasa. She had cared enough for her victim to consider marrying him, but he turned out to be plotting against the warlord. So she feeds him a lush banquet spiked with finely ground glass, spends one last night with him and, agonized, sends him off knowing that in a few days he will die, "cut to pieces inside by the tiniest of swords."

The story sounds extravagant, almost lurid, like that of a fat, cheap paperback, but Schaeffer handles it with the restraint and delicacy of the venerable Japanese writings "The Snow Fox" so eerily echoes. (Lady Murasaki, who wrote what is perhaps the world's first novel, "The Tale of Genji," in the 10th century, is the most obvious influence.) Utsu, Matsuhito and Norimasa inhabit a society in which lovers send each other "morning after" poems, ladies compose their 12-layer robes in elaborate and significant color combinations and days are spent preparing formal processions to view the full moon, the first snowfall on a still lake or -- with a quintessentially Japanese melancholy -- freshly fallen cherry blossoms.

Past and impending losses tint every species of happiness. The most significant aspect of the love between Utsu and Matsuhito is its evanescence; it arrives after she is convinced that she has turned "to stone," and then is thwarted when a combination of fate, pride and pessimism force the two to separate. The second half of the book describes Matsuhito's epic search for Utsu -- and a suggestion that he is one of the elder of the seven samurai depicted in Akira Kurosawa's great film.

The novel has flaws. Schaeffer spins a big muddle around the characters' identities and a confusing and ultimately extraneous back story about four lost children, for reasons that never become clear. But what she nails is the era's seductive combination of barbarism and refinement, the way attention to beauty and mood in all their exquisite shadings accompanied routine crucifixions and warriors who burn villages to give themselves better light to fight by. In his years apart from Utsu, Matsuhito masterminds an ingenious (and thunderously rendered) battle and travels the countryside, getting mixed up with bandits, untouchables and an assortment of other figures who seem to have stepped out of folklore.

Utsu and Matsuhito are eventually reunited, and what they then share -- a genuine intimacy unshrouded in the feudal romanticism of court life -- becomes the novel's great surprise. Suddenly you realize that while the pageantry, intrigue and adventure of "The Snow Fox" has unfolded, Schaeffer has been carefully building this man and woman into fully realized people. Not just like you and me, mind you -- they are still larger-than-life -- but nevertheless quite human. Lady Utsu would say that this makes them even more heartbreaking, and in this, as in few other things, she is probably right.

Our next pick: English travelers on a seriocomic odyssey through Turkey, in a delightful rediscovery back in print after almost half a century

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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