The protagonist, the author’s repeat character, Dr. Burke, is a devotee of a Japanese bushido style that includes bare handed fighting, weapons work, and just a whiff of ninjutsu. Burke’s training is traditional, brutal, complete, and redolent of the traditional relationship of student and sensei, a theme Burke comes back to again and again as, presumably, the author works through his own experiences with his teacher or teachers. For reasons that would spoil the story to reveal, this particular novel represents a pinnacle point in Burke’s arc of character, and in the trajectory of his relationship with his sensei.
The basic story is that a young girl, a member of a powerful and well connected Japanese family, has gone missing — strayed is perhaps a better term — and a scion of that family requests Burke’s assistance in bringing her back into the fold. Burke’s motivation for helping, and what he learns as that motivation becomes more complex and multilayered, serves as the backbone a story that is, as are so many tales of this type, all about duty, loyalty, and of course family.
What makes this book worth the review, and worth your reading time, is, in the end, none of the usual ingredients already covered, but rather Donohue’s wise, asides, particularly during the first third of the book, regarding martial arts, Japanese culture, and Zen influences:
“There’s a lot written about the martial arts; all these complicated ideas about transcending the self, a dense thicket of words and description. It’s cool and calming, the promise of an experience of measured beauty….Step out with me on the hard floor of a practice session. No incense here, just the smell of heated bodies; no changing, simply the grunt of effort and the thwack when a blow hits home.
“And losing the self? Please. There’s sublimation, for sure. Training is a heavy yoke….The reasons we strain are varied, but in the end they are deeply and depressingly similar. Skill gives us control and the illusion of a manageable universe. Achievement brings approval. Effort is penance….”
“I knew what I was feeling—haragei. It’s the weird sixth sense that the Japanese believe is a hallmark of the advanced martial artist They say that with haragei, you can sense the skill of an opponent just by being in close proximity to him.”