The Hotel Hokusai

T.Y. Garner

Ringwood, £9.99

Published by the small Glasgow imprint Ringwood, T.Y. Garner’s debut novel received virtually no attention when it came out in late February, which is a terrible injustice as it’s a heady dive into late 19th Century Japan by an author of great talent, featuring a protagonist cut off from his roots and forced to find a role for himself in an unfamiliar land.

Han is having a typical Korean boy’s childhood until his mother marries the Scottish missionary Reverend Hare, who raises him in the Christian faith and instils in him a love of literature. In 1893, with Han entering his teens, the Reverend announces that he’s going to be sent to finish his education at the College of Christ’s Soldiers in Japan. But when he arrives in Yokohama, Han realises that there is no College of Christ’s Soldiers. Reverend Hare just wanted him out of the way.

Penniless and unable to speak the language, Han manages to blag a job assisting an eel merchant at the docks and quickly learns how to chop eels to the satisfaction of his boss, the taciturn but soft-centred Yamato. Here, he makes the acquaintance of three Scottish artists: Garner’s own creation Archie Nith, along with real-life painters George Henry and the sublime E.A. Hornel. It’s the height of the japonoiserie craze, and their Glasgow dealer has paid for their extended stay in Japan to produce works he can sell to his clients.

Events take a macabre turn. Tsutsumi, a young woman working in a nearby brothel, the Persimmon (based on Yokohama’s famous Nectarine Number 9), is fished from the sea, the circumstances of her death unknown. Han has just lost his virginity to one of Tsutsumi’s colleagues, and feels personally invested in her fate, but his plan to uncover the truth behind her death is also fuelled by his ambition to become a writer. Recently introduced by Archie Nith to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Han can see how a good murder mystery could be his best shot. The book we hold in our hands, The Hotel Hokusai, is the end result, written by Han some years later.


He persuades his new friend Archie to join in the investigation, and the mid-section is told from Nith’s perspective, based on the diaries Han has inherited. In these chapters, we see Yokohama through the Scottish artist’s eyes as he drifts through the more rarefied circles of similarly privileged Westerners. Unlike Han, for whom Japan is a make-or-break deal where he must struggle to survive, the more languid Nith sees the country principally as inspiration for his creativity. He’s willing to join in Han’s quest, but is more concerned with helping another of the Persimmon girls out of prostitution by finding a dealer for her artistic works.

As a teacher of English as a Second Language, Garner has lived in Japan, and his recreation of late-19th Century Yokohama is vivid and meticulous. Through a handful of focal points, such as the Persimmon, he evokes the status and influence enjoyed by the British community, hinting at the inner workings of the city through their intertwined commercial interests and, in the background, a tacitly-acknowledged intelligence network.

The Hotel Hokusai marks the arrival of an already accomplished, captivating new voice. Although the whodunnit aspect gives the story its forward momentum, it’s less compelling in itself than as a vehicle for exploring Han and Archie, both outsiders in Japan but with very different relationships to the country and who, despite what they go through together, seem fated to remain strangers.