A complex history of secrecy and grief is gradually revealed in this painstakingly layered, deliberately muted first novel, from the author of Where She Went (stories: 1998).
At the outset it seems to be the story of narrator Ellen Rock's unspoken love for her older cousin Randall Jewell, a charming, intellectually curious boy who had shared his personal secrets with her—and perished during WWII on Iwo Jima, bequeathing to Ellen his diary and an illustrated volume describing the eponymous Japanese gardens (the subject of petitions that their pristine beauty be spared by Allied bombers). But the novel wanders, as Ellen searches both her own past and the histories of other people whose experiences impinge on or influence her own. Her older sister Rita dies young, after marrying a traumatized war veteran; and Ellen's own husband Henry, who breaks down and enters a V.A. hospital, fades from her life almost as quickly as he had (accidentally, as it happens) entered it. Her uncle Sterling (Randall's father) importunes Ellen to "Tell me about . . . my son," all but paralyzed by a guilty secret that mocks a life of outward rectitude. And Randall's legacy wounds Ellen as severely as do her own losses: She discovers not only that during the Civil War the Jewells' stately home had been a haven for runaway slaves, but that it had also been the site of horrendous injustices, including an embittered freeman's defiant act of vengeance. The novel's separate parts don't quite cohere formally, but the nature of their interconnection is suggested by this telling phrase from Randall's book: "Tucked within the gardens of Kyoto is a shrine to unborn children, to lost children, to children too soon dead."
The message isn't lost on the reader, but it's shrouded in oppressively plangent (though often quite beautiful) prose so concentrated on mourning for this story's numerous dead and gone that it disallows any contrary experience or emotion, or even a breath of air. Not negligible by any means, but awfully bleak and monotonous.