Truthfully, from the title and the description, it's not a book I might have picked up, but I'm so glad I did.
From the very beginning, the writing is beautiful. Ahh, so this is a well-written literary novel, I thought. Not one that tries to impress people with its words, but one that lets the story slowly unfurl as the reader connects to each character.
The author is obviously someone who loves Japan as much as I love France. The details about Japanese homes, culture, and customs are definitely intriguing.
The novel begins, both in New York and Tokyo in 1935, introducing us to characters who are not yet affected by the coming war. The saga continues through the midst of the war, focusing on attempted attacks and the devastation in Japan. Most of us probably know the results of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I was unaware that Tokyo was firebombed and largely destroyed along with thousands of residents killed.
But that isn't what this book is about either. It's about the people and how they survive and whether love can grow in spite of evil deeds.
I can't possibly explain why I loved this book, so let me share a couple of passages. Anton, an architect who lived in Japan for more than a decade was asked to help the U.S. government figure out how to best bomb Tokyo. He built a Japanese village using authentic materials. When he couldn't get the floor mats the Japanese used, the U.S. government supplied them from an unknown source.
Anton had tried not to think about the mats'"lenders" as he inspected each of the units individually. Like the ghosts of his flaming oboji, though, they came to him anyway, their former lives whispered from the scars and nicks etched into the rough weave: dents from a low table, laden with food or books. Nail varnish from a careless pedicure. A sickle-moon scuff mark, the approximate shape of a toddler's sandaled heel. They haunted him, these small marks left by lives upended. But as Anton repeatedly reminded himself, he had taken the job. He had to agree to the rules.
What details. What a way to delve into this character's ghosts as he helped fight war against a people and architecture he loved.
Here's a passage from a lunch betweem Anton and Hana, another main character who is a glamorous Japanese woman raised in Great Britain.
"I can't eat when I'm nervous."
She exhaled a lazy plume of smoke, studying him as though trying to decide something. Finally, she said: "Certain people -- certain men -- have that effect on me."
At first Anton wasn't sure he'd heard correctly: she'd said it in the same way she might casually bring up a food allergy. When he did register her meaning there was a moment of disorientation. She's not well, he thought, as he had two weeks earlier. It occurred to him that it might be a good time to reemphasize the fact of his marriage.
In spite of loving the writing in this book, something happened, a plot twist in the third chapter, that almost made me put it down. Even now that I'm finished, I see so many possible ways the plot could have been changed so that readers wouldn't have that jarring, book dropping occasion. And that occurrence does taint my view of the novel. I'm very intolerant of violence and cruelty. Still, the rest of the war atrocities throughout the book didn't affect me as deeply as this one event, which I'm not revealing because it would be a spoiler.
I would probably give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. I hope you'll give it a try.
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