It wouldn’t be accurate to say I read this book so much as I devoured it. Or maybe it devoured me — swallowed me whole, chewed me up and spit me out. It is, as you may have heard (several people recommended it to me) a very good book, but reading it was, for me, kind of an overwhelming experience.
I knew I had heard that the novel dealt with the disappearance of a small child, which meant that it was going to be a pretty emotional read. What I didn’t know was that it dealt with the disappearance of a six-year-old girl named Emma, which, since I have an Emma of my own, made it fairly traumatic reading right from the start. I was immediately drawn into the story and couldn’t put it down even while I was shaken by what I was reading and often found myself near tears.
And now we come to volume 3 in the Unintentional World War Two trilogy — the third of three books I read in a row all dealing with aspects of the second world war that I knew little about. Mind you, I knew more about the internment of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in both the U.S. and Canada, than I did about either the development of the atomic bomb or the German occupation of Guernsey. What I didn’t know, and learned from reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was how the Japanese internment might have looked in the city of Seattle, from the perspective of a young Chinese-American boy whose father is (as many Chinese were, due to the Japanese attacks on China) rabidly anti-Japanese, but whose closest friend and first love is a Japanese-American girl.
The story is told through flashbacks, with the tale of widower Henry in the 1980s exploring his past unfolding alongside the scenes of young Henry and his friendship with Keiko in the 1940s, just as Seattle’s Japanese residents are about to be swept from their homes into internment camps far from home. A moral outrage of wartime is depicted here through the eyes of two young teenagers taking their first steps into adulthood and independence.
This is the second in my “unintentional trilogy” of World War Two novels — books I stumbled across, one after another, each of which revealed an aspect or a story from that war that I didn’t know much about. In fact I knew nothing about the historical event at the centre of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the German occupation of Britain’s Channel Islands.
The novel takes place not during the war, but after, and is an epistolary novel in which the main character, a writer, gradually learns the story of the occupation of Guernsey through her correspondence with the members of a very unique book club that formed on the island during the occupation. Through the letters — and the letters she writes home after going to visit her new Guernsey friends herself — the story of their suffering and courage unfolds beautifully and naturally.
I’ve enjoyed Nora Gallagher’s memoirs — Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection — so much that I was almost hesitant about picking up her debut novel. There are some writers — Anne Lamott is the one who springs first to mind — who are such brilliant nonfiction writers that their novels, while still good, pale by comparison, as if the vividness of the writer’s first-person voice can’t quite be transferred to a fictional character. (The reverse, of course, is also true — brilliant novelists whose memoirs or other nonfiction works lack the power of their fiction. How many writers are brilliant at both? I can’t think of any offhand). I was afraid Nora Gallagher might be in the same category. After reading Changing Light, which I did enjoy very much, I’m still not sure. It’s a very good novel, but I’m not sure it has the power and immediacy of her memoirs.
This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found it entertaining, engaging, engrossing, and generally excellent (I guess it’s a 4-E book!).
One of my few regrets in life is that I didn’t spend more time travelling when I was young and relatively free of responsibilities. The two weeks my friend Kirsten and I spent backpacking in Europe the summer I was 21 gave me a tiny taste of that wonderful world of young-adult backpackers wandering the globe. I have always wished I’d gone back for me rather than limiting myself to that one cautious taste. (If you haven’t read my essay about getting kicked off a train in Yugoslavia at midnight, read it here — if you’ll permit a slight tangent from raving about Gilman’s story)
Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire were bolder than I was. They went for the full-on, spend-a-year-backpacking around the world experience. Their trip, like mine, took place in the late 80s, but instead of starting in the relatively safe world of Europe with its network of Eurail passes and hostels, they went straight to communist China, which at that time was barely open to visitors from the West.