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For the reader familiar with Tokyo and Japan, the Edo portions of Stranger in the Shogun’s City contain a number of satisfying ambushes — moments where the early 19th-century behaviours have a striking resonance with modern Tokyo. The poorest residents of Edo, Stanley writes, wore clothes made of used paper which still bore the traces of writing. Their wealthy counterparts, dressing desperation up as urban glamour, “wore fine silk adorned with random scribbling”. Few western writers have managed to capture the DNA strands from this fabulously colourful moment of Tokyo’s past and weave them so adroitly into narrative.
It is grounded in the driest scholarship, the deciphering of 200-year old Japanese documents. From this unpromising material she has extracted a touching and accessible story about leaving the provinces for the thrilling loneliness of the big city, about making mistakes and making the same mistakes again, about divorce, poverty and underachievement, all of it set against the background of epochal historical change... Unfortunately for Stanley, her central character is not around to see any of this. Tsuneno’s death in 1853 at the age of 49 is conveyed so abruptly that it has no emotional impact. It is difficult to see that Stanley could have done more with the material at hand, but in the end all that we know about Tsuneno is not quite interesting enough to allow her to stand for her age.