An American veteran remembers his time in Japan in a novel about a World War II that might have been.
In this alternate-history novel, Van Buren (Ghosts of Tom Joad, 2014, etc.) follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war. In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late wife. But back in 1946, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto after it’s been firebombed, dealing with the horrors of war and the less-than-humanitarian instincts of his own men. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions. Van Buren presents a bleak picture of a world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation (“Is the morphine for Garner so he stops screaming, or is the morphine for you so you don’t have to hear him screaming?” says a medical officer. “He probably feels better screaming”). Hooper is an engaging protagonist, a prototypical innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role (“The worst words in the English language to me had become ‘What should we do, Lieutenant?’ ”). Van Buren doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time. An afterword provides context for the book’s alternate version of the war.
A complex portrayal of a counterfactual