A story of love and secrets in postwar Japan.
It’s 1966, and an American student named Barbara Jefferson is teaching English classes at a Japanese college. When the story begins, Nakamoto Michiko—Barbara’s closest friend in Japan, and her foster-mother—has died, leaving the young woman a strange inheritance: a case of plum wine. Barbara soon discovers that the papers in which the bottles are sealed is covered in calligraphy, and, once they’re translated, learns the story of Michi’s life. She also falls in love with Okada Seiji, the man she turns to for help with the translation. Their relationship is overshadowed by the fact that Seiji is hibakusha: He survived the attack on Hiroshima, and the resulting guilt and ignominy still poison his spirit. Barbara learns that Michi was a survivor, too—a truth the older woman concealed when she was alive. Everyone in this book has a secret, a private hurt or a hidden shame, but Davis-Gardner is not interested in melodrama. Even the most disturbing revelations are dispassionately delivered; they create a deep and quiet resonance, rather than cheap sensation. For example, Barbara is shocked to learn that hibakusha are ostracized—that they’re punished for being the innocent victims of an atrocity. Davis-Gardner does not turn this fact of postwar life into an indictment of Japanese mores. Instead, she situates the survivors’ silence within the more general code of honor and restraint that defines so much of Japanese culture. This reticence—the influence of which is also felt in the author’s unadorned prose style—provides a powerful, affecting counterpoint to the overwhelming reality of Hiroshima. It also offers a salutary alternative to the American literary tradition of telling all until it’s fit for the daytime talk-show circuit.
After telling Barbara a sad story, Seiji introduces her to the concept of awaré—“graceful sorrow.” It’s an apt description for the feeling that suffuses this elegant, moving novel.