Book Review: The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria, 2015)

I’ve long been told that I should read Isabel Allende so I happily picked up this second hand copy at Powell’s Books when in Portland. The Japanese Lover wasn’t exactly what I expected but Allende didn’t disappoint. Her writing is effective, dense, and infinitely enjoyable.

Allende packs a lot into this book. The story encompasses a lot of 20th century history in the USA but does it without leaving the reader overwhelmed. She wisely assumes that her reader will have a basic knowledge of this history and so moves forward with the story.

We open with an unusual senior’s home in San Francisco, present day, where a young woman with a mysterious past has just been hired. Irina is originally from Moldova, raised in poverty by her grandparents; we know she’s running away from something but she seems happy for the first time at Lark House. There she begins an unusual friendship with Alma, an older, mostly independent and wealthy woman who has her own secrets in her past. Including the letters she regular receives from an unknown correspondent.

Allende slowly unfolds Alma’s history, from her privileged upbringing in Poland, interrupted by the growing threat of World War Two when a young Alma is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco. There she develops two close friendships – her cousin, Nathaniel, and the gardener’s son, Ichimei. Before the war is over, however, Ichimei and his family are deported with the rest of the Japanese residents of the West Coast and spend the rest of the war in a prison camp.

Canada shares this shameful history with the US; thousands of Japanese, many of them citizens, were unfairly imprisoned and stripped of their homes, land, and jobs. While it’s something that’s slowly becoming more talked about, it’s still a part of our history that is often ignored or unknown. I have yet to read much fiction dealing with it, either American or Canadian. I don’t know enough about the historical facts of the prison camps in the USA to speak to Allende’s accuracy but I thought she did an excellent job of portraying how different members of Ichimei’s family dealt with what happened to them. His mother, father, older brothers, and older sister all have vastly different reactions and each of them feels authentic and honest. Allende also touches on some of the far-reaching effects that the imprisonment has on their family and others.

(In fact, the major historical inaccuracy that I noticed was that everyone in Alma’s family was so completely non-racist. While definitely making for a more uplifting story, it felt a little unrealistic that they were all so open-minded.)

Alma’s life story is balanced out by the present day storyline. The growing friendship between Alma and Irina is charming and interesting to read about. I was less interested in Irina’s relationship with Alma’s grandson, Seth, but it does do a decent job of showing the disparity of wealth and class divisions in present day America.

All in all, The Japanese Lover was a good introduction to Allende’s work and I will definitely look for more from her in the future.

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Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.