Thaniel Steepleton, a translator and former boxer, and Keita Mori, a watchmaker, live an unconventional but happy life together with their adopted daughter Six in late Victorian London. Mori’s clairvoyant powers don’t impinge much on their day-to-day life – perhaps he sometimes answers questions before he’s asked them, or knows that their neighbour will deliver a healthy baby before she does. However, this changes with a vengeance when Mori abruptly realises that he must go to Yokohama, and Thaniel follows him, taking up a posting in the British legation in Tokyo. Once they’re in Japan, staying on Mori’s unexpectedly grand family estate, Thaniel becomes increasingly aware that Mori’s ability to see the future is leading him to carry out a plan that is too big for Thaniel to understand – and in which there may be no place for him. Meanwhile, Thaniel’s ex-wife Grace investigates the mysterious wave of electrification sweeping in with the wind, while Takiko Pepperharrow, an old friend of Mori’s, heads off on secret business to a frozen prison in northern Japan. Mori may be a clairvoyant, but how much of this has he planned ahead – and how much is outside his control?
In the hands of a different writer, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, with its clockwork octopus and electrical ghosts, could have risked being both twee and Orientalist. But Natasha Pulley already negotiated colonialist questions deftly in The Bedlam Stacks, and she knows how to walk the line between the atmospheric and the gimmicky (I found her use of Thaniel’s synesthesia a bit gimmicky in the prequel to this novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but luckily it’s barely mentioned here). She also spent some time living in Tokyo and speaks Japanese, which helps to dispel some stereotypes. I loved her author’s note on the use of language in the book, which explains that Western audiences tend to think of Japanese as an unfailingly polite and formal language, but she’s tried to show what ‘normal, working-class Tokyo Japanese actually sounds like’ in her rendition of it in English, so we have Japanese speakers saying things like ‘sod off!’ and ‘Fucking ghosts!’ And the novel is beautifully evocative of Mori’s estate, with its hot pools that smell of sulphur and pine trees wreathed with prayer cards.
Most impressive, however, is how Pulley ties Mori’s gift of precognition into the narrative, which is much more intricate than the story she told in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Having spent too much time writing a time travel novel, I know how difficult it can be to plot when the normal rules of cause and effect are suspended, but clairvoyance introduces a whole new set of problems. How far should we hold Mori responsible for things that he knew were going to happen but did nothing to prevent? Doesn’t his gift simply reduce all the other characters in the novel to his puppets, because he knows what they’re going to do in advance and so can factor it into his plans? How do you write a book where one of the central characters already knows the ending? Perhaps inevitably given all this, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow feels oddly weighted, with so much unfolding in the last fifty pages or so, but Pulley generally handles these concerns with aplomb. She also thinks about the emotional effects of Mori’s abilities; how you love somebody who knows what’s going to happen to you; how he can love you back with the weight of all that knowledge. This novel isn’t quite as brilliant as The Bedlam Stacks, but it’s pretty close.
If this book sounds like your kind of thing, and if you’re able to do so, please consider ordering from Hive, from Waterstones, or from your local independent bookshop to support authors and bookshops at this time.