A debut novel, from the longtime translator of Haruki Murakami's work, about culture clash between Americans and Japanese in the World War II era.
This novel arrives with an impressive pedigree; in addition to translating Murakami, Rubin (Making Sense of Japanese, 2002) is a scholar of Japanese literature who has taught at Harvard. So readers might be surprised at the heavy-handedness and lack of nuance in his fiction, which suffers from undeveloped characters, maudlin dialogue, and a contrived plot. Before Pearl Harbor, the widowed pastor of a Japanese congregation in Seattle becomes smitten with a newcomer to the church. “He felt his legs grow weak” at his first sight of Mitsuko. “She was stunning.” The pastor, who is white, has a young son, Billy, who will mature into the novel’s protagonist. Mitsuko lost a child and no longer has a husband, having left one who beat her in Japan. For the purposes of fiction, the coincidences are perfect. He lusts for her as much as a devout Christian can, while she, in turn, feels stirrings as well. “The Lord is tempting me now,” she tells him. “You are my temptation, Pastor Tom.” She and Billy form a bond much stronger than the one the boy has with his father as the marriage between the two meets resistance from both cultures. After Pearl Harbor, tensions estrange the pastor from his wife, who leaves with his son for an internment camp, rejecting the religion he represents. Billy eventually returns to his father, and much of the novel finds him following in his dad’s footsteps, studying to become a minister and a missionary, showing an affinity for Japanese women. The fate of Mitsuko is a mystery he must resolve as he follows his mission to Japan and has all sorts of revelations, some more probable than others.
There is plenty of insight and illumination into cultural difference between the two countries, but these never coalesce into a fully fleshed novel.