Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 3, 2016

The Snow Kimono, by Mark Henshaw #BookReview

The Snow KimonoI’m not very keen on “intricate psychological thrillers”, so I took the blurb on this book at face value and dismissed Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono for quite some time.  But a month ago Guy at His Futile Preoccupations admired it and then I remembered that Sue at Whispering Gums had made it sound irresistible and – as if that were not enough – it’s collected a swag of awards that I tend to take seriously:

  • Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2015
  • Winner, ACT Book of the Year Award, 2015
  • Longlisted, Voss Literary Award, 2015
  • Shortlisted, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2015
  • Shortlisted, Queensland Literary Awards, University of Queensland Fiction Book Award, 2015

So when I saw it at the library I took it home…

Memory, he had once believed, was our real refuge.  It was who we were.  What we returned to.  A somehow sacred place.  Our cells might die, be replaced, but not their secret synaptic codes.  That was the paradox.  Memories were our sanctuary.  What bound us to each other.  But he knew now that was an illusion.  Memories could change, be destroyed, be rewritten.

Now, in the library, he would remember.  He would force himself to recall all the pain, to give up those things he wished he could have left buried.  He would overcome his own resistance.  (p.257)

It was when I came across meditations like these that I began to enjoy the book.  At first it seemed like a complex puzzle with bits that don’t fit, much like the Japanese jigsaw puzzles that are (apparently) unlike the ones we are used to in the west.  As the Japanese lawyer Omuru explains to Inspector Jovert in Paris:

… jigsaws mean something different for us.  Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe.  Each piece of the puzzle is considered individually.  No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose.  Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging, as possible.  In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world. Puzzles are not toys to us, but objects of contemplation. (pp. 43-4)

This is a clear signpost to the frustrations of trying to put together the pieces of this story!  It’s fair to say that, if the reviews at Goodreads are any guide, there will be some who are intrigued by the task, and others who will find the twists and turns of the narrative irritating.  The plot shifts from place to place (Paris, Algeria, Japan); and time periods move about, beginning when Omura and Jovert are both in retirement and recalling their childhood, their youth and young adulthood, and when they are of an age to become parents (or parents-in-lieu) but the time shifts are not neatly chronological nor are they clearly signalled.  This is a novel where the reader must keep her wits about her.  Especially since there are also signposts that the characters are all telling lies to themselves as well as to each other, and that their memories are not to be trusted either:

Memory is a savage editor.  It cuts time’s throat.  It concertinas life’s slow unfolding into time-less event, sifting the significant from the insignificant in a heartless, hurried way.  It unlinks the chain.  But how did you know what counted unless you let time pass? (p. 298)

Henshaw warns his readers that they may have to be satisfied with an ambiguous ending:

When he thought about it later, it seemed to Jovert that he had spent most of his life listening to people, sifting through what they said, weighing, assessing.  Trying to fit things together.  But life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve.  What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together. And sometimes not even then.  (p.317)

Henshaw also likes to tease his readers with an occasional knowing joke:

He recalled doing the same thing when he was a boy, going over a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph in a book, reading the words over and over again, trying to prise them apart long enough to see into the secret cleft they had just described.  But he never could.  The words closed over as quickly as a woman turning on her bed.  (p.394)

I think I have worried at the words of this novel enough to prise them apart and assemble the jigsaw pieces of the tale, but I suspect that I need to re-read it to distinguish between author-intended ambiguities and *blush* stuff that I missed.  But no-can-do: I have to take it back to the library – it’s in high demand.

PS Here’s another beaut review from Karen at Booker Talk!

Author: Mark Henshaw
Title: The Snow Kimono
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922182340
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Snow Kimono
Or direct from Text where you can also buy it as an eBook and there are reading club notes.


  1. You’ve intrigued me with this one. Added it to the pile.

    • LOL You will notice that I have very cunningly not said a word about what it’s ‘about’!

      • I was just going to say: BUT WHAT DID YOU THINK? I confess I found it impenetrable and annoying. Annoying because while I was reading I had the sense I was missing lots of things, and I am a close reader. Your ‘review’ makes me want to re-read and have another crack at it. And I shall.

        • I was annoyed too until about half-way, but I knew beforehand that it was one of those books where you just have to put that on hold and press on so that eventually all will be revealed. But I did feel at one stage that the author was being clever for the sake of it, and I bet others feel that too and give up.
          Was it worth it? Yes, because it is so cleverly constructed and the actual plot when revealed is a whole new thing to think about as well.

          • OK well I will definitely try again. Thanks Lisa!

  2. Thanks for the mention Lisa. I chewed this one over for some time after reading the last page.

    • I bet you did. I half-read it twice. Started it, left it a day while I finished If This is A Woman, and then then started again. Even then, things were clearer….
      But it’s not just the puzzle aspect: it’s also what he says about memory. Dealing with aged parents and their fading memories makes me interrogate my memory too, especially when people around me remember the same events differently!

      • Yes it is bizarre when people remember the exact same incident differently. It’s not that they’re lying. Makes you wonder about memory all around.

        • Yes, that’s true… even when I write in my diary – the same day – I find myself selecting, editing, omitting events and what I think about them, and then when I read the diary entry some time later, that’s sometimes not how I remember it at all!

  3. I remember when his first book came out, Out of the line of fire, discounting it because it was a thriller, but it got great accolades. I didn’t read it, but when this came out, particularly with its Japanese link, I knew I had to give him a go. Such a provocative read, thanks for the link.

    • My guess is that with your many visits to Japan you would ‘get’ many references that I’d have missed…
      OTOH, you’ve got to love any book set in Paris!

      • I lived in Japan for two and a half years. It didn’t help! Not me anyway.

        • I don’t know that you need to have been to Japan to understand this book – Mark Henshaw has never been there!! (He gave his book to a Japanese colleague to read – I went to the book’s launch which was very well attended – and she was impressed with how well he evoked Japan.)

          • Yay for internet research, eh? But how did he come to know about the Japanese jigsaw puzzles? Or did he make that up?

            • I don’t think he made that up Lisa – though my memory for all that I “knew” about the book when I read it is a little hazy now BUT he did work at the National Gallery of Australia in the Prints and Drawings area (if I remember correctly) so maybe he came across them in his work?

              • Ah, that might explain it…

          • I do remember reading that, that he’d never been there which I found, mmm, something. Cheeky? I would like to understand it, and it’s probably me as reader more than anything. Will have another try sometime.

            • Hi Jenny, here is a paragraph from an old post of mine about authors visiting places they write about: “Another question Baum asked was to Stephen Daisley on writing about place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that visiting the place isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he had not visited all the places he’d written about in his novel Traitor, which of course led Baum to ask how one can write about a place without going to it. Daisley’s answer? One word: Google!”

              Given that fiction is about the imagination, I’m not sure you HAVE to visit a place you write about, though with all those fussy readers out there ready to pick at inaccuracies, I think those who don’t are pretty brave!

              • Sue, I think that there’s more to visiting a place than just being there too. Perhaps it depends on the purposes of the novel but depending on where the setting is, an author might need to know more than just the weather and the streetscapes and a sense of the people who move through it.
                Paris is the obvious example. If writing a ‘relationship’ story, it’s probably enough to know about restaurants and shopping and some landmarks, and Paris is so written-about, it’s probably possible to do it without ever going there. (Though LOL why you’d pass up a tax-deductible research opportunity escapes me).
                But an author of LitFic, setting a story in Paris, wanting to write about memory, and how we suppress discomforting elements of life, might need to spend some time wandering through the Paris that has suppressed its memory of the bits that are mostly airbrushed out of its touristy parts – the Occupation, the handover of the Jews to the Nazis, the violence of its revolution, its role in colonialism. There are small signs of this history, but you have to look for them, and you’ll probably only do that if you know about them already. Patrick Modiano is brilliant at small, sly allusions to the suppressed past, easy to miss, but part of the fabric of his writing that makes it great.

                • Yes, well said Lisa. Your Paris example is a good one in this case because, as I recollect, Henshaw started this story during a writer’s fellowship he had in Paris after his previous book. I think he was there for a year (or more). The Japanese stuff is more interesting because he does seem to have imbued a Japanese aesthetic and tone without being there. In the end I suppose it’s about the quality of your imagination and the effectiveness of your research.

              • It’s very interesting. I wonder if the same holds true for writing about people with another cultural background. As you say google is an amazing tool for writers. And the power of the imagination and empathy and reaching into interiors and locating universal emotions and motivations, it makes sense. I must say nothing about Henshaw’s depiction of Japan or Japanese people rang false to me. I just wondered whether my having lived there should have made it easier for me to understand. But it didn’t. The fault lies with me, the reader.

                • Oh, I don’t think we can ever assign ‘fault’. Whenever I re-read old posts or journal entries about my reading I find some that seem naive or wrong, but Damon Young says (I’m paraphrasing) in The Art of Reading that books are what we make of them, they are not a fixed entity.

                • Oh no, Jenny, I wouldn’t say that at all. I’d say that different readers like different books, and different readers like different books at different times. I still haven’t been able to read Orhan Pamuk’s My name is red. It’s supposed to be great but I just couldn’t get into it – at the time anyhow. I might try again … but then again, so many books.

                • Yes, exactly.

  4. Okay, reading these comments – this is my Next Read after Spargo-Ryan’s “Paper House”. Just too intriguing…

  5. So glad you did eventually pick this up. It was one of my favourite reads from 2015, partly because of the theme around memory but also because of the atmosphere he created which felt tangible and yet elusive at the same time.

  6. I agree, it is a very annoying and intriguing read. I liked it a lot, even though it was a confusing read as to what was reality and truth. At first I would reread parts because I thought I missed something, but then I just went with the story.

    • I did both. I read about a quarter of it, realised I had lost the thread, and then re-read it only to find there was no thread. So then I just pressed on, only occasionally re-reading paragraphs or pages. Now I wonder if I had taken notes as I read I might have noticed things I missed, but I also think that missing them was partly because I don’t have that long experience of reading crime novels that some people have. They read with the expectation that logic and the skills of deduction lie at the basis of the story. Either they or the detective will work it out using logic. So they have a kind of inner faith to sustain them when the going gets tough!

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