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Kanzashi by Christopher Kincaid is an absorbing read about a maiko’s struggle to find her place in the world.

Geikos are women skilled in the art of entertaining men with dancing, singing, pouring drinks, and telling stories. Maikos are apprentice geikos. Mameko is one such maiko, training to be a geiko under the stern guidance of her mother. Her calendar is choc-a-bloc with training, appointments, and other social demands of a maiko. Being a daughter of a prominent geiko family, everyone thinks life is easy for her. However, only Mameko knows how hard she works.

Amid all these, one of Mameko’s patrons, Mr. Funaki (who is also an important politician), is murdered with her hairpin stuck in his throat, thus, making her the prime suspect. She must resist the police’s effort to make her confess to the crime and find the true killer, or else her dream of becoming a geiko will never be fulfilled.

Kincaid’s Kanzashi starts on a great note. Firstly, the title means a hairpin used in traditional Japanese hairstyles, which itself is symbolic of the murder weapon. Secondly, the novel warmly welcomed me to the Japanese culture and introduced me to the iconic world of geikos and maikos. Theirs is a world where beautiful and skilled women make the men forget their worries by their songs, dance, and stories. The book prodded me to find out more about these Japanese traditions.

Further, the characters are well-developed. Be it the protagonist Mameko, her best friend Takeko, her overbearing mother, or even the patronizing police chief – I could identify with every person’s feelings and motives. The book resonated with me by showing how parents’ high expectations are a great burden on children. In their quest to discipline their children, they often forget that love, instead of strictness, can empower children far better. Also, Kincaid beautifully describes the various period costumes worn by the characters. They were a treasure to read about.

However, Kanzashi fails to fully realize its potential. A murder mystery set in the glamorous world of geikos during the first half of the twentieth century should have made for an excellent story. While the world of geikos with its envy and passive-aggressive power play between the various geiko families/teahouse proprietors is immaculately portrayed, the resolution of the murder mystery was inefficiently executed. Without revealing any spoiler, I can only say the way Mameko made the murderer confess seemed implausible to me. The murderer was a vengeful and shrewd person. That the person could not see through Mameko's trap is hard for me to digest. Further, there are some typos, however, one of them is a glaring error.

To conclude, the author intricately weaves the traditions and culture of the geikos with a murder mystery, resulting in an absorbing read. However, the way the mystery was resolved undid the good work established by the book. If only the climax was more believable, Kanzashi would have been a great historical mystery.

Reviewed by

I am a twenty-something avid reader. Be it work or leisure, you will always find my nose buried in books. I like the genres mystery/thriller/suspense, romance, fantasy, contemporary and historical fiction, but what I am looking for IS a good story. You can find me at Debjani's Thoughts (book blog).

About the author

Christopher works as a librarian and studies Japanese media culture--anime, folklore, and more. He enjoys getting lost in research and in the woods. view profile

Published on March 15, 2020

Published by

70000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by