When I initially started reading this book, the collective voice was a little hard to get used to, but I began to see that Otsuka actually performed an amazing feat by writing her book in this style. Not only was she able to tell the story of hundreds of women at once, she was also able to faithfully represent all the variations and vagaries of life these women coming over from Japan faced. I actually grew to enjoy this use of the first person plural, though I thought I never would. I understand where some people could see this style as impersonal, but to me, it felt very intimate and gave me a feeling of being in the midst of a large group of women recounting their sorrows to an impartial listener, though anyone reading this book cannot remain impartial for long.
I was awash with sympathy for the way these women had been tricked and forced into lives they had never suspected to lead. Only a few found joy with their new husbands and children. Most of them lived sharp lives of percussive unhappiness, moving and migrating along with the men they had been yoked to for better or worse. I think the chapter that most tugged at my heartstrings was the one that dealt with the taking of the women’s virginity on the night they arrived in America. There was nothing romantic or tender about any of it, and it was with a heavy heart that I read about women who were forced bodily into becoming the wives that their new husbands had paid for. The way the women were treated and tricked into the voyage was treacherous, and as I gripped my book in my hands, ingesting all their heartache and bitterness, a wave of sadness rolled over me that couldn’t be shaken.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese have now become the suspicion-laden enemy, and the Americans who had formerly ignored them begin to harbor deep resentment and anger towards them. This forces the Japanese women and men to become even more stolid and silent, and they remain confused as to why certain men are being dragged off into the night, never realizing the same fate awaits them. The last chapter is narrated by the Americans who watched the mass exodus of the Japanese and can’t understand the puzzling feelings of sorrow and loss they feel for people who have existed so long beside them but have never been respected or properly honored. Otsuka does a remarkable job of making this section, and indeed the whole book, feel at once like a confessional statement and a list of regrets that will move and touch both readers who are familiar and unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding these lost people.
This is a short read that packs a powerful punch, and while it’s ultimately very sad, it tells a story that may be new to some. In the fluidity and grace of Otsuka’s imaginings, these women move out of the territory of the faceless and nameless and become recognizable and human; more like us than we will ever be able to realize. This was a powerful and haunting book that will make readers consider and think deeply as they peruse the pages, and some may find these stories cannot be forgotten once the covers have been closed. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.