The challenging of typical gender tropes in Lian Hearn’s “Across the Nightingale Floor”

Across the Nightingale Floor by Gillian Rubinstein is about the story of teenagers Takeo and Kaede, set in a fictional medieval Japan-based world. Takeo, born as Tomasu, one of The Hidden, a religion based strongly on the Kakure Kirishitan, the Hidden Christians of Japan, swears revenge on Iida Sadamu of the Tohan who murdered his family and friends. Lord Shigeru of the Otori clan has similar interests and rescues and adopts Takeo. On his way to revenge, Takeo is confronted by the truth that he shares the blood and skills of The Tribe, a group of highly trained and supernatural skilled assassins, and starts to train in their arts to be able to kill Iida Sadamu one day. To reach the warlord he must cross the eponymous Nightingale Floor, an assortment of wooden floorboards which play a song if you step on them.

Kaede on the other hand, wants to survive captivity by the Noguchi and free herself. Knowing that her family’s honor is in her hands, however, she does as she is told, agreeing to marry Lord Shigeru whether she wants to or not and despite her reputation of men dying around her. But when she meets Takeo, both fall in love with each other, and wish for nothing more than to be together. Kaede’s betrothal with Lord Shigeru, as well as Takeo’s quest of revenge stand between them at first. But even when Lord Shigeru dies and Kaede, instead of Takeo, murders Iida Sadamu, The Tribe won’t let Takeo go, forcing him to leave Kaede and their love behind.

Both Takeo and Kaede, as well as several other characters, appear to challenge typical gender tropes throughout the novel. Men are often depicted as strong, powerful, and good fighters who enjoy bloodshed and have to protect their submissive wives, while women are shown to be rather kind, fragile, and weak and require protection from men. These binaries also play a role when the decision of who to marry has to be made. Men get to decide on their partner more often than women, who are sometimes even forced to marry against their will in a game of war and power. Women thus repeatedly appear more like objects than as human beings.

Takeo is depicted as weak at the beginning of the novel. On top of being indebted to Lord Shigeru and having to do everything that’s asked of him, Takeo is unable to talk due to being in shock after losing his family and shows his mourning by crying for them. Lord Shigeru, however, tells him to endure the pain instead of crying, elaborating that only children cry, while men and women endure. Even though men’s reluctance to show their pain through tears is a typical gender trope, it is still unusual that women also endure in this case. Takeo’s initial softness also goes against the common tropes.

His time with The Hidden taught Takeo to always forgive others and not to murder anyone. The slaughtering of his family, however, makes Takeo crave revenge and he learns how to fight to achieve his dream of killing Iida Sadamu. His inherited abilities from The Tribe prove to be useful on his quest and make him a natural-born assassin. Though while his craving for shedding blood, as well as his natural strength, belong to the typical gender tropes, Takeo still fights against most of his instincts. Throughout the novel, he is unwilling to murder anyone unless it is Iida Sadamu or in case it helps to end someone’s suffering.

Otori Shigeru also proves himself to be a character that challenges gender norms on several occasions. He tries to live without unnecessary fighting, treats both women and men equally and acts with kindness and a clear mind even when he knows he is being wronged. But while his behavior is a direct contrast to that of Iida Sadamu or Lord Noguchi, he is still able to act as a strong warrior and doesn’t hesitate when he has to kill others for what he believes is right. In that regard, Shigeru acts more according to common gender tropes than Takeo.

While many men, according to typical gender tropes of a patriachal feudal system such as the one depicted in Tales of the Otori, don’t respect women or acknowledge that they are incredibly strong, Takeo shows many times that he acts differently. He doesn’t get angry at Kaede after finding out that she murdered Iida Sadamu even though he wanted to be the one to kill him and recognizes her strength when they fight each other during practice. Takeo also notices how powerful Shizuka and Yuki are after having fought against one and having seen the other fight and kill several men. This depiction of female strength is portrayed several times throughout the novel and not only restricted to members of The Tribe, considering both Kaede and Lady Maruyama prove to be incredibly powerful as well.

Kaede’s development is especially interesting to look at when analyzing how far the novel challenges typical gender tropes. At the beginning of the story, she is shown as rather weak and helpless, a puppet in a game of power between men. Kaede is also willing to become the wife of whoever those in power ask her to marry, even though she would rather marry for love, if she can help her family that way.

Throughout the novel, she continues to be kind and thoughtful but proves herself to be very intelligent, as well as a powerful woman with a strong mindset. Kaede kills two men in self-defense, learns how to fight from Shizuka and is depicted as incredibly courageous. Her courage and strong mind help her when she is faced with Iida Sadamu towards the end of the novel. She is able to hide her fear and think clearly, thus managing to kill the warlord all on her own after deceiving him. Kaede’s behavior is directly compared to Lady Maruyama, who succumbs to her fears and hence dies. Her actions alone at the end of the novel thus challenge every typical gender trope.

Review: Across The Nightingale Floor

In the following, I will talk about Lian Hearn’s Across The Nightingale Floor, an Australian fantasy novel. You might wonder why Australian fantasy specifically? Why am I not saying it is a fantasy book?

There is a reason for that. In Australia, there is the Australian fantasy subgenre, which differentiates itself from the fantasy genre. The difference is not as obvious as an Australian author or the author writing their book in Australia. If this sparked your interest you want to read up on it, I suggest you check out John Ryan’s Reflections on an Australian Fantasy. Constructing the Impossible.

For this review, I will focus on Lian Hearn’s connection to Australia in this book and why it falls under the subgenre Australian fantasy. As mentioned, the story plays out in pseudo-medieval Japan. This sounds very confusing now but let me shed some light on the matter. Between Australia and Japan exists a literary tradition, which intel’s that the Japanese write about Australia and vice versa but that is not the only reason why her book falls under the subgenre of Australian fantasy. If you pay attention you can also find aspects of Australia in how Hearn describes her world. Specifically the description of nature.

Now after this short detour, let’s get into it.

Across The Nightingale Floor by Lean Hearn was first published in 2002 and is the first book of her Tales Of The Otori book series. We are introduced to a pseudo-medieval Japan called The Three Countries. Tomasu is the protagonist and belongs to a persecuted religious group called the Hidden. One day, he returns home and finds his village burning and his family killed. To escape their fate he runs away but runs into the horse of Iida Sadamu, a feared man across the three countries.

His men chase after Tomasu but luckily the mysterious Lord Otori Shigeru, who later adopts him and changes his name to Takeo saves him. On their journey, Takeo learns a lot about himself and his family. Eventually, he is sucked into a scheme with his adopted father, their clan and a secret society called the Tribe. The Tribe turns out to be a huge part of his destiny.

Check the book and the author out

Across The Nightingale Floor is full of mysteries, secrets, love, betrayal, suspense and so much more. If you are as attracted to any of this as much as I am, this is the book for you. In her own way, Hearn explores Japanese culture with this book and if you want to know more about it, you should visit her website, where she talks about the experience of writing about another culture and the difficulties that come along with it.

I honestly was not able to put the book down once I started reading. The experience was such an adventure and hence I was completely drawn into the story and the characters. I felt so many different emotions ranging from happiness, sadness to anger, and probably a lot more. A complete whirlwind.

I read the book as a part of a seminar from my university, and I was doubtful. My experience with good and enjoyable books assigned by school or university was slim. However, I will totally read them again and check out the other books of the series. I personally think that Lian Hearn’s writing has a lot to do with it. I often read books of authors, with amazing plots but the writing not doing it justice. That is not the case here at all. She has a way with words, which sucks you in completely. Sometimes I didn’t even feel like I was reading anymore but watching a movie. Sounds odd but it does happen to me sometimes with very good books. So, to wrap this up, I can only recommend this book. It was amazing.