The acclaimed travel writer and journalist meditates on the impermanence of life.
Like many others, Iyer (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, 2014, etc.) reveres the beauty and portent of autumn. Japan, he writes, wants the world to think of it as the land of cherry blossoms, “but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.” Iyer—who divides his time between California, where he cares for his mother, and Japan with his wife, Hiroko, and her two adult children from a previous marriage—writes that autumn “poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.” The author chronicles how Hiroko’s nonagenarian father had recently died. Her mother, whose memory was failing, complained, “I have two children…and I have to live in a nursing home. Until I die.” The second child is Masahiro, who severed all contact with his family. Throughout the narrative, the author mixes musings on the ephemerality of existence with scenes of quotidian life, most notably his visits to the local ping-pong club for “maverick games on Saturday afternoons” with elderly club patrons with vivid memories of the war. Some readers may be put off by Iyer’s decision to render Hiroko’s English dialogue in fragments—e.g., “you remember last week, I go parent house little check my father thing?” Late in the book, he refers to her “homemade, ideogrammatic English,” but the rendering will still strike some as insensitive. Otherwise, this is a thoughtful work with many poignant moments, as when Iyer and Hiroko take her mother on a drive past Kyoto’s temples and, in a moment of clarity, she starts crying when she remembers visiting them with her husband.
“Bright though they are in color, blossoms fall,” Iyer hears schoolchildren singing. “Which of us escapes the world of change?” This moving work reinforces the importance of finding beauty before disaster strikes.