THE BONSAI TREE by Meira Chand


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In both The Gossamer Fly and Last Quadrant, Chand dramatically teased apart some of the delicate webs of hierarchical tension in Japanese life; here, however, while the subject matter is similar--the disintegration of a cross-cultural marriage--the result is static and talky, with chunks of instructive exposition about the ritualized behavior in Japanese sexual relationships. Kate, an Englishwoman, is warned against marrying a Japanese by her US friends, Pete and Paula. But she loves Jun Nagai, scion of a textile-mill-owning family, whom she has met in London. (""There was a certainty about him. . . their unrelated lives seemed to support between them an incongruous, beautiful, fragile thing."") And Jun, though feeling ""exposed"" (unforgivable for a Japanese) by Western spontaneity, returns her love. So they marry and return home--to Jun's mercilessly disapproving mother Itsuko, a brilliant businesswoman who took over her husband's mills but remains a rigid traditionalist with ""eyes as hard as nickels."" (She claims she's merely ""holding"" the business for Jun.) Soon, unfortunately, Japan begins to reclaim Jun: he buckles under to the ""limitless obligations"" of children; he embraces the bar culture, where men can be children again; he tries to keep his vulgar mistress (who deliberately bore him a child) secret from Kate. Meanwhile, then, Kate recoils from the ritualized double standard--which is outlined in lecture/visits to Paula; she loses her baby, feels ""hemmed into her tiny plot""; she can't reach Jun, can't handle Japanese women (cunning survivors of cruel abnegation). And, in a terrible--ultimately fatal--flight, Kate travels through a hell of bars and brothels, dogged by manifestations of male hatred: after taking refuge with a kind priest in a hell-like dumping ground for Japan's outcasts, she chooses an heroic death. . . which brings a horror of disharmony to the Nagai family, but freedom to the grieving Jun. (Like a bonsai in open ground, he'll never be culturally bound again.) Occasionally affecting, rich in cultural ambience--but didactic and overdrawn, without the subtle intensities of Chand's earlier, more impressive work.

Pub Date: July 13th, 1983
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin