The story begins as Mami Kunisaki, a 25-year-old fledgling writer, is brought to the stately mansion of best-selling author Holly Moriwaki by the editor they share, a man named Kagami. Since winning a new-writer prize and making her literary debut a year earlier, Kunisaki has failed to produce a publishable follow-up despite several attempts. Kagami has long been the editor of Moriwaki’s highly successful fantasy series Nishikibune (Brocade Boat), and knowing that the series is a favorite of Kunisaki, has arranged for her to become an apprentice of Moriwaki in the hope that she might absorb some of the elder writer’s magic. Moriwaki, who actually hasn’t produced anything new in quite some time, has just been released from the hospital following a minor stroke. She has a private secretary named Keiko Ushiro, a woman in her fifties, who has been coming in for nearly 25 years, but Kagami thinks the elderly author could use some live-in help, at least for a while, and sees Kunisaki as the perfect person for the job. The first-person narration of events in the women’s life together switches back and forth among their three voices.
Moriwaki takes an immediate liking to Kunisaki, and calls her “Churchill” after an androgynous black cat that appears in her Nishikibune series. As a longtime fan, Kunisaki is in awe of Moriwaki, but she quickly grows tired of her live-in situation and flees the mansion after just three days; only after being brought back again under orders from Moriwaki is she able to find her niche and feel at home. Her youthful presence subsequently acts as a stimulant, and the midsection of the novel has both Moriwaki and Ushiro undergoing positive changes as a result. In recent years, Ushiro has been ghosting the essays that publishers ask Moriwaki to write, and she has found increasing validation for herself in the task. Meanwhile, in spite of not yet having recovered full use of her hand, Moriwaki resumes writing, beginning with essays and proceeding, with only Ushiro’s knowledge at first, to a new installment in the Nishikibune series. At the same time, even as she becomes the darling of everyone connected with the Moriwaki residence for the croquettes she learns how to make at a part-time job, Kunisaki also continues with her writing. This portrayal of women from three generations and from completely different backgrounds living together in a single household and devoting themselves to writing becomes the true highlight of the novel.
A little over a year later, Kunisaki leaves the mansion to start a prepared-food business with the son of Moriwaki’s former husband. Moriwaki dies not long after, leaving behind her unfinished Nishikibune manuscript. Ushiro completes the work to excellent reviews and becomes established as a writer in her own right; she goes on living in the Moriwaki mansion.
Moriwaki once asked Ushiro what she thought her true calling was. Having been at a loss for an answer, Ushiro has continuously repeated the question to herself over the years since. She was working at a municipal auditorium when Moriwaki came to give a lecture, and was persuaded to quit her civil servant’s job there to become the best-selling writer’s secretary. For her part, Kunisaki found herself under Moriwaki’s wing at Kagami’s urging. And it was because of her former husband’s encouragement and support that Moriwaki herself became a novelist. The unexpected effects of such chance encounters and the inevitabilities that flow from the notion of “a calling” are among the themes addressed in this ambitious and unusual work replete with hidden meanings to explore.