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'Teahouse' is a love story infused with Japanese historical detail

Ellis Avery spent nearly a year doing research in Kyoto. (Kate Attardoa/Penguin Group)

Orphaned and lonely in a foreign land, 9-year-old Aurelia Bernard enters a Shinto shrine and uses knowledge learned only hours before to change her fate. "I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one."

"The Teahouse Fire," by Ellis Avery, is set in an intriguing time and place: late-19th- century Japan, just as the Land of the Rising Sun is opening its doors to the West. Foreigners are still banned from Miyako , the city now known as Kyoto , but Christian missionaries have stationed themselves within, stealthily plucking converts from behind paper walls and waiting for the day when they can proselytize openly.

Aurelia is forced to leave her dying mother behind in New York City and accompany her uncle Charles, a pompous, officious Jesuit priest, to his new posting in Japan. Though her mother urges her to learn Japanese and live independently as a translator, her uncle envisions for her a life of servitude, preferably within the church, starting in his home.

Aurelia and her uncle have barely arrived in Japan when the horror of a life with him becomes plain. She steals out of the house and into the night, wandering to the shrine and making a wish of the shrine's goddess. A fire rages; her uncle's house burns.

Fleeing the fire, Aurelia takes refuge in Baishian , an austerely beautiful teahouse belonging to the Shin family, teachers of the rituals of the tea ceremony to the rulers of Japan for 12 generations. She is discovered there by Shin Yukako , the teenage daughter of the master teacher; she renames Aurelia "Urako" and adopts her as her official maidservant and unofficial little sister.

In the Shin household Urako is considered not foreign, but different. "Maybe when she was pregnant with you, your mother tried to let you go," Yukako guesses, "but she had you anyway, and that's why your face turned out like that." At the communal baths, where Urako goes with the other household servants, a regular studies her features and then declares, "That's no foreigner."

Urako worships Yukako, as an adored older sister at first, and later with the passion of a desperate, unrequited lover. We watch their relationship develop the same way we watch Japan's relationship with the West: through the eyes of a child who is part of the drama, who sees more as she matures and learns to understand what is not being said.

This book is not simply a love story. It is also a meticulous documentation of the Westernization of Japan, of the Meiji emperor's push for bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment), and of how the tea ceremony went from being an exclusively male art form to one practiced -- and preserved -- by women.

The character Yukako is based on an actual person, Sen Yukako , the woman who pushed to have the tea ceremony taught in girls' schools and, in doing so, made tea accessible outside of Japan. Avery's character hews closely to what few facts are known about the real person -- her character even traces her lineage back to the real-life founder of the tea ceremony, Sen Rikyu -- and it is Yukako's drive and determination that save the art of tea from oblivion, both in reality and in the book.

"Your family was failing and you made it strong," Urako whispers to Yukako, comforting her after a humiliating night. "You took an art that could have died and you made it live, and the world is richer for it."

Avery's writing is saturated with color and detail; she manages to make 19th-century Japan both accessible and exotic, infusing her story with a sense of dignified calm. A longtime student of the Japanese tea ceremony, New York-based Avery spent nearly a year doing research in Kyoto, and her strong understanding of and deep reverence for Japanese culture and Chado, "The Way of Tea," are obvious in this deeply engrossing, multifaceted work.