First-time novelist Byrne explores the aftermath of the Allied bombings of Japan during World War II, both atomic and incendiary, as experienced by a varied cast of characters.
Japan has surrendered, and its starving population is struggling to survive, physically and psychologically. Satsuko Takara and her teenage brother, Hiroshi, separated during the firebombings, scrabble for food and shelter in the rubble of Tokyo, each using the means afforded by his or her gender. Satsuko reluctantly becomes a prostitute, servicing the occupying American soldiers, while Hiroshi leads a gang of orphans who beg, finagle and steal to keep skin and bones together. Satsuko’s fiance, Osamu, who she presumes died during his military service, tries to drown the brutality and shame of the war in cheap liquor while seeking some feeble redemption in literary creation. And Hal Lynch, an American soldier who helped plan the bombings by photographing Japan from the air, wrestles with guilt as he comes to understand the scope of the devastation he helped cause. He attempts to make amends by documenting the destruction of Hiroshima and the radiation sickness his American superiors want to deny. Written in a series of short chapters alternating among the voices of the four main characters, the novel offers a kaleidoscope of postwar Japanese life. Unfortunately, that format also makes the story choppy and character development limited; the lack of a distinctive voice for each narrator makes it difficult for the reader to follow the unfolding action and engage with the characters. The hopeful ending feels like an afterthought.
Byrne’s writing is clear and occasionally charming as he revisits this moment with a critical eye, even if his story never achieves a powerful narrative momentum.