Two families seek to make peace with their past as a young novelist attempts to overcome his war-tossed demons.
Kiefer (The Animals, 2015, etc.) begins his novel by introducing us to the achingly beautiful memory of Ray Takahashi, a young Japanese-American soldier returned from fighting for a country that had forced his family to abandon their home for an internment camp. He returns to the orchards of California, looking for his childhood sweetheart, Helen Wilson. Following this opening scene, we learn that the novel is, in fact, narrated by a different character, John Frazier, who, upon his return from a devastating tour in Vietnam in 1969, helps his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and their former neighbor, Kimiko Takahashi, try to uncover, or keep covered, various sins and mysteries of the 1940s. To add another layer, Frazier, a novelist, is actually reflecting on the story in 1983, when he finally learns the truth about Ray’s life. It’s a complex narrative structure, but this allows Kiefer to constantly overlay past and present and to recognize, through John, the cycles in which his character, and in fact the country, remains trapped—cycles of racism, cycles of war, and cycles of young men who return home guilty of crimes, the full ramifications of which they couldn’t possibly understand. Yet for all this, the novel—certainly anti-war, certainly condemning our country’s dark past—is full of quavering beauty, unbreakable love, and fragile, relentless hope. “Sweet life,” Kiefer-as-John writes to end these interlocking, deeply tragic stories. “Have you not been with me all the while?” In the hands of a writer as skilled and gifted as Kiefer, the answer can only be yes, for sweet life spills from every perfect word.
It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.