A little house with a red gabled roof on a suburban Tokyo hilltop is the setting of this novel, which unfolds in the period from the early 1930s to Japan's defeat in World War II. The narrative takes the form of a memoir penned by the housekeeper, Taki, when she is close to 90 years old, for her sister's grandson Takeshi. Taki is 14 when she encounters her mistress, Tokiko, who is eight years older than herself. Widowed by her first husband, Tokiko brings her son and Taki with her to a new marriage with Hirai, an executive for a toy manufacturer. Three years later Hirai builds his family a Western-style house with a red roof, and Taki's memoir relates her time with the people of this house until nearly a decade later, when she evacuates to her family home out in the country shortly before the end of the war.
At the crux of the tale are two illicit loves, the first harbored by Tokiko for Itakura, a young art-school graduate who joins her husband's company as a designer, and the second by Taki for Tokiko, which Taki cannot suppress despite knowing her mistress's secret. Thus although Tokiko and Taki?the one beautiful, kind, and affluent, the other briskly capable at her duties?have always been like sisters to each other, as the years go by their relationship begins to fray. The final chapter is told by Takeshi, who after Taki's death determines that Tokiko and her husband were killed in the air raid that destroyed the house, and that Itakura came back after serving in the war to eventually achieve fame as a manga artist. Solid attention to historical detail combines with an intricately woven plot in this masterful prizewinner.