cover image The Apprentice

The Apprentice

Lewis Libby. Graywolf Press, $22.95 (248pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-245-5

Although set in Japan in 1903, Libby's first novel avoids the exoticism and antiquarianism of James Clavell and sets its own tightly dreamlike tone. Setsuo, apprentice innkeeper at an isolated mountain hostel in Northern Japan, finds himself marooned with a dubious cast of travelers during a blizzard. His youthful naivete unfortunately draws him not only to a mysterious young woman with a band of itinerant performers but also to a half-frozen and half-crazed visitor. When this stranger flees back into the storm, Setsuo and another guest separately pursue him, leading to robbery and murder. With rumors of political intrigue enveloping the action and the apprentice in possession of a Macguffin as enigmatic as a haiku image, Libby maintains a sense of mystery and claustrophobia through pared-down prose and minimalist characterization. Setsuo's love interest, for instance, is simply the ""girl in the cloak of yellow fur"" for much of the novel. Even after he learns her name is Yukiko, her actions, history and motives remain ambiguous to the end. Spare and muted, Libby's debut has distilled his diplomatic experiences in Japan with the U.S. State and Defense Departments into a subtle, if sometimes attenuated, story of innocence and temptation halfway across the world and a century ago. (Sept.)