Review: I Am the Mask Maker and other stories by Rhiannon Lewis
There’s a story in this collection that’s so rewarding I wanted to re-read it immediately and, indeed, intend to do so today. Oh Hanami (or Fall Seven Times and Stand Up Eight) chronicles the cherry-orchard-planting-adventures of an octogenarian farmer called Jim, who lives in Herefordshire, with fine views over the Welsh hills.
One day he sees a TV interview with a Japanese gardener who is explaining the meaning of the word Hanami which, to save you looking it up, means “flower viewing.” The gardener goes on to explain that viewing cherry blossoms in the spring reminds us of the transience of life, because they only blossom for some two or three weeks and so ‘are beautiful, dazzling, bright and fleeting, just like us.’
The idea of planting trees where he’d intended to sow the barley soon takes root, if you pardon the pun, the farmer’s heart now fully set on creating an orchard-cum-viewing site, complete with pathways and picnic seating where people can come to celebrate life.
He works out that he will need a hundred and thirty-seven trees, which will cost a fortune, so he has to overcome resistance from his family and moreover bring them along with him, get them to buy into the dream.
Jim considers the varieties of trees available such as Kanzan, Okame and Tai-haku along with Snow Goose, Pandora and Blushing Bride and decides to order the last of these, to plant them in a corner of a field where his late wife’s ashes are scattered.
As all of this occurs you find yourself so very much on his side, embracing his vision because it is so positive. Along the way we hear some more about Japanese rituals such as Momijigari, autumn leaf viewing and Tsukimi, moon viewing, which seem to bind people more closely to beauty and give them a deeper appreciation of the natural world.
A happy accident introduces Jim to Anthony, a cyclist who hits a pothole and offers to trade some help with planting in exchange for a bandage for his wounds.
It takes eight long years for the trees to grow, planted as they are in alternate rows of five and seven, ‘like a haiku’ and for the blossom to confetti in abundance and then the people come and the story edges towards its beautiful, simple conclusion. A gorgeous story, a literal flowering of prose.
Heft and depth
Some of the other stories are much more playful, such as the whimsical opener Gabriel’s Halo which tells of heaven seemingly closing down and angels having to come to earth or Independence Day which follows a man’s hapless attempts to liberate a budgie from a cage in an old people’s home which lurches from bungle to mishap to feathery mess.
There’s a story about dividing up a family farm in 1960s’ west Wales with a bit of a to-do about who gets to keep the Welsh dresser and the curious Dead in my Tracks in which a wasp that appears at a funeral is a harbinger of many more animals to follow, as a woman ends up almost besieged by goldfinches, spiders, doves and swallows.
Other stories have more heft and depth such as The Last Flight of La Librairie D’Afrique du Nord, which sees an old man closing down his specialist bookshop for the last time, aided by two unlikely helpers, being an aspiring dancer and a homeless man who’s been sleeping in the shop doorway.
There’s also a duo of stories about a world-weary teacher whose musical gifts have been stifled by his mother and a chance meeting with a professional pianist who is bowled over by the man’s playing.
The collection ends with a bravura Italian flourish with I Am the Mask Maker. In this, a young Venetian boy, the son of a carpenter, falls in love with the idea of making the ornate masks which have become as synonymous with the city as gondolas.
In order to realize his dream, he first has to apprentice himself to a shoemaker, in whose workshop he learns how to turn materials into beauty, earning himself a growing reputation and allowing him to graduate to making masks.
He adapts their design to filter out the miasmic stench of the plague which has come to ravage the Renaissance city, making it a sort of parable for our times, when facial masks come complete with all manner of fancy decorations.
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