Thersa Matsuura

Book Review: "A Robe of Feathers"

A Robe of Feathers: And Other Stories“A Robe of Feathers” is a collection of short stories by Thersa Matsuura, an American living in Japan. By their nature, short story collections are difficult to review as a totality. That said, I’ll try to give an overall impression and some insight into individual tales.

Matsuura uses urban fantasy in Japanese settings to great effect in “Robe,” which is her first book. There are a few instances when it would have been helpful for me, a westerner, to be more familiar with the folkloric creatures she uses: Ojizo, Kappa, Tenjo Sagari, etc., but that knowledge was not always necessary. For instance, the first story, “A Robe of Feathers,” is a modern day version of the folktale which is also told within the context of the story. The “nymph” is never even given a Japanese name and the tale flows toward its beautiful, tragic conclusion. I thought the strongest of her offerings was the story with the greatest proliferation of creatures, “Sand Walls, Paper Doors.”

It’s told from the viewpoint of an American student in Japan. She’s lonely, but too shy to reach out to the strange population and culture around her. Then she’s transplanted into a haunted mansion where she finds spirits who are equally alien and lonely in modern Japan. The ensuing story moved me so much I wept for joy at the end. I can think of only one other short story that’s ever elicited that response. For me, the entire book’s brilliance culminated in that tale, though there are other excellent stories.

Many of Matsuura’s stories, among them, “Hate and Where It Breeds,” and “Ganguro and the Mountain Witch,” felt unfinished. They conveyed a sense that this was not the end, but the beginning of impending horror. For me, this was as if an oni had turned on the theme to “Jaws” while I read and my mind continued to follow that musical cue. I’m still a little tense, which is why I can’t say I loved all of Matsuura’s stories. However, I can appreciate the skill it took to achieve the dark, otherworldly effect she weaves through “A Robe of Feathers.”

If you are Japanese or if you are familiar with Japanese folklore and culture, this book will engross you. Matsuura’s style is spare, but fluid. She effortlessly grounds the reader in Japan’s modern cities and countryside. Even with unfamiliar terms and place names thrown in, I had no problem understanding her plots, though appreciating character motivations and goals derived from a foreign mindset was sometimes difficult.

Giving a score on a collection of short stories seems unfair as one has to “grade” on a curve. However, if you enjoy fantasy in alternative settings or you just love Japanese literature, I recommend this collection.