Books We Loved, Jun. 2019
Ana Johns, The Woman in the White Kimono (Park Row Books, 2019)
Naoko Nakamura is only seventeen when she falls madly in love with an American navy man. It’s 1957, and the US occupation of Japan has ended just a few years before, leaving bitter memories in the local population. Even though Naoko’s beloved Hajime wants to marry her, her family will have nothing to do with him—in part because they have another husband picked out for her, but also because marriage to an American will cast shame on the entire family. When it becomes clear that Naoko is pregnant, her mother gives her a choice: rid herself of the child or leave the family forever.
More than fifty years later, as Tori Kovac’s father lies dying, she learns he once had, as he puts it, “another life before this one.” Her journey to discover the truth of that other life leads her halfway around the world as she struggles to separate truth from the stories—always dismissed as fiction—that her father told her as she was growing up.
This exquisitely written, emotionally compelling study of two women living in different places and times yet linked in ways they cannot imagine pulled me in from the first paragraph and never let go. Ten thousand babies were born to Japanese women fathered by US servicemen; the vast majority of them did not survive. The Woman in the White Kimono explains the challenges that the children and their mothers faced. It will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.
Find out more about the story behind the story at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL
R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War (Harper Voyager, 2018)
Rin is not Harry Potter. No attentive guardians are looking for her; there are no summons from a cute familiar. She studies day and night to be able to attend the military academy at the city of Sinegard, the capital of Nikara. She wins a coveted place at the Academy, but once she arrives, she realizes how far she still has to go. The rich and educated students are dismissive or downright cruel to Rin, because she comes from a farming district in the South and has darker skin.
After several strenuous years at the Academy, another student’s taunts and bullying lead to a fight, during which Rin displays supernatural ability during combat. Until that moment, Rin displays no unusual traits other than exceptional endurance in the face of pain and disappointment. Only the eccentric Lore teacher, Jiang, understands that she has the ability to call down a god to inhabit her body, allowing her to fight with supernatural powers. He’s hoping he can convince her this path will only lead to madness and destruction.
Rin initially listens to Jiang, but when she is assigned to the Cike, an assassination squad, after graduation, she falls under the sway of the commander, the charismatic and powerful Altan. Altan, like her, is a Speerly, a member of an island race almost obliterated by the genocide of the Mugen, the enemy of the Nikara.
When the Mugen invade Nikara again, Altan and his small band of outcast assassins try in vain to win a significant victory. After discovering the slaughter of the entire population of a town and trying to console a former classmate who survived multiple rapes, Rin is willing to try anything to save the rest of Nikara. But will the solution Altan proposes be the ultimate catastrophe?
This gripping, haunting and original novel grapples with the notions of revenge and hatred and how those change someone’s character. The story concludes in The Dragon Republic (due August 2019).
Interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy.—GM
Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen (Little, Brown, 2015) There are six children in the Nigerian family we meet in The Fishermen, but the focus is on the four older ones, all boys. Their story, which takes place in the 1990s, is narrated by Ben, the youngest of the four. The bond between the brothers is strong at the onset, with most of the direction provided by the eldest, Ikenna, or Ike. Problems begin when the father, a harsh disciplinarian, moves to another town for work, leaving the brothers in the care of their anxiety-ridden and often exhausted mother. The brothers take to looking for trouble, and of course they find it. In particular they are drawn to fishing in a foul river that is forbidden to them, in part because of its association with the “old ways.”
Tensions arise among the boys once they head down this path to rebellion, and they escalate when a madman who has “the vision” prophesies that one of “the fishermen,” meaning one of the brothers, will kill Ike. This family is church-going Christian, but in times of stress they are quick to fall back on African superstitions to drive off evil. Yet neither prayer nor traditional juju seem to have the power to reverse Ike’s destiny once the die is cast.
The events that unfold in The Fishermen play out against a backdrop composed of cultural dichotomy and the political upheaval of the times. Obioma paints this background with the sweeping stroke of a wide brush, preferring colorful imagery to minute historical details, while leading the reader to understand the parallels between what is going on in the family and what is happening in Nigeria. The Fishermen is sometimes painful to read, but always it is captivating, strange (in a good way), and hypnotic.—JS
Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Washington Square Press, 2018)
Evelyn Hugo is a still stunningly beautiful and A-List famous movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood—think Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Sophia Loren. Now seventy-nine years old and nearing the end of her astonishing life of ruthless ambition, gossip, scandal, global fame, glitter, immense wealth, and seven husbands, the glamorous Evelyn is ready to answer the question that has been gossiped about and asked for decades: Who was the love of Evelyn Hugo’s life?
To answer this question, Evelyn requests that the young unknown journalist Monique Grant, and only Monique, write the long-awaited tell-all story of Evelyn’s life. As the two women work together in Evelyn’s fabulous Manhattan home, the shocking reason why the star has chosen a young biracial woman to reap the financial and career rewards of this star-studded assignment is revealed, and as we follow Evelyn’s path from poverty in Hell’s Kitchen to Hollywood superstardom, we see that with her coiffed platinum blonde hair and Anglicized name, her Latino roots are not the only thing that Evelyn has been hiding all her life.
The poignant twist is that of the seven husbands, whom Evelyn married for a variety of reasons—including escape, security, fame, love, lust and damage control after a scandal—not one of them was the love of her life.
So, who was it??—DAS