The Gardens of Kyoto

“Kate Walbert’s fine, delicate prose captures voices that we don’t hear much anymore, and she guides us from past to present, and from death to life, with … deep understanding.”
Amy Bloom, author of Away


“I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?” So begins the story of a young woman, Ellen, coming of age in the long shadow of World War II. Forty years later, she relates the events of this period, beginning with the death of her favorite cousin, Randall, with whom she shared Easter Sundays, secrets, and perhaps, love. In an isolated, aging Maryland farmhouse that once was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Randall had grown up among ghosts: his father, Sterling, present only in body; his mother, dead at a young age; and the apparitions of a slave family. When Ellen receives a package after Randall’s death, containing his diary and a book called The Gardens of Kyoto, her bond to him is cemented and the mysteries of his short life start to unravel. With lyrical, seductive prose, Walbert spins several parallel stories of the emotional damage done by war. Like the mysterious arrangements of the intricate sand, rock, and gravel gardens of Kyoto, they gracefully assemble into a single, rich mosaic.

Select Reviews

“Readers in love with language will adore this book.” USA Today
“In precise, delicate prose, the author renders with equal power the quiet desperation of a girl growing up in 1950s America and the ethereal.” The New Yorker
“When the usual year-end round-ups of the best fiction of 2001 appear … The Gardens of Kyoto will surely be on everyone’s list. Like the gardens for which it is named, this hypnotic, elegant book will leave a lasting impression.” The Providence Sunday Journal

Additional Reviews


  • Book Sense Top Ten, 2001
  • New York Times Notable Book, 2001
  • Nominated, International Impac Dublin Literary Award, 2001
  • Connecticut Book Award for Fiction, 2002
  • New England Booksellers (NEBA) Bestseller List