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Minatoya (the memoir Talking to High Monks in the Snow, 1992) debuts in fiction with a pleasantly told, highly detailed, risk-free, and autobiographical “I-story” of Etsuko in the years between the world wars. The story opens in 1921 in Seattle, where the widowed Etsuko lives with her sister Naomi and Naomi’s husband Akira. Naomi dies during childbirth, and after a few years Akira decides that the child, Hanae, must return to Japan to relearn her native culture. Accompanying Hanae to Kobe, Etsuko faces an uncomfortable reunion with her own cold and distant mother, Chie, who abandoned her soon after her birth. Hanae haltingly enters Japanese culture; the nationalist fervor in Japan swells; and Etsuko participates in antiwar activities. As the war fever grows, Etsuko and Chie achieve a modest peace and join various pacifist groups, while Hanae studies her way to the head of her graduating class of 1939. Each of these phases of the plot is authoritatively embellished with fine re-creations of Japanese culture of the era, but aside from the light pressure Akira exerts on Etsuko to return Hanae to the US, the story could just as well have occurred in contemporary Japan without impeding its general intent. Etsuko, who guides the reader through the autobiography-novel, is strangely missing from the meat of the tale: her antipathies are lukewarm, her loyalties only gently divided, and her anxieties exclusively domestic in focus. Minatoya also begins many sections with Etsuko describing the pitfalls and challenges of writing autobiographical fiction, a device that intrudes unnecessarily upon the flow of the story. Well written, nevertheless, and thoroughly researched. Minatoya evokes the nature of Japanese culture and offers explanations for many of its beliefs and habits—without which her slim storyline would never have reached such excessive length. They don—t propel the reader forward, but they are informative.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-85362-0
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1999