Groves’ debut historical novel, set in mid–20th-century Japan, is a well-tempered story of cultural dislocation, the ruin of war and faith in love.
The author has created an epic here, but it is of the intimate rather than the sprawling variety. The book opens in the 1930s when a young man, Jiro, is sent to San Francisco on a work-study program to learn the American end of his family’s silk business. The story moves back and forth between those months in the United States and Jiro’s life in Kyoto, two very different experiences. As Japan invades China and a more expansive war looms, the book illuminates the importance of gardens in Japan, as well as bathing rituals and fried squid. Despite being minutely plotted, the narrative offers many unforced insights into Japanese culture, drawing some fiercely dark moments and cushioning others with light humor: “Its driver was sitting on the front, oblivious to the uplifted tail of his one-horsepower machine and the straw-filled remains of the day the swaybacked nag was depositing on the pavement.” When Jiro becomes a fighter pilot, the novel offers readers an entertaining tour of the Zero aircraft, later describing in stunning detail the action of aerial dogfights. With equal flair, the author draws a lovely wedding and outlines the workings of sericulture. There is much death and intolerance here, but readers will find balance in Jiro, whose proud Japanese personality is slightly beveled by his Western sojourn. In the end, Jiro does not rue surviving the war; others who chose suicide didn’t realize that “the Americans weren’t going to invade Japan, just occupy her. This meant they would not rape and kill their women, just marry them.”
Lively, illuminatingly exotic and richly told tale of life during wartime.