TREE OF HEAVEN by R.C. Binstock


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From first-novelist Binstock (the collection The Light of Home, 1992): a haunting captor/prisoner love story set during the Japanese occupation of China. The year is 1938. Captain Kuroda is a reluctant and unskilled Japanese officer, a botanist by training, tormented by memories of the Nanking massacre: the squeals of children being killed, the smell of burning flesh, the dismembered bodies, the sight of a pregnant woman bayoneted in the abdomen, the ""constant rape."" His army has moved on, leaving him the commander of a small garrison in the rolling hills of east-central China. When he comes upon his soldiers raping a filthy and starving woman, he intervenes for reasons he doesn't fully understand, and takes her under his protection. The daughter of a doctor, Li speaks Japanese; glad of the warmth of his quarters, she cooks for him but avoids his questions. Slowly, though, communication begins: He shows her a bamboo grove and talks about plants; she suggests that she should be his mistress. Isolated from his peers, Kuroda is renewed by this woman who seems to enjoy making love to him; she responds to how much he needs her and senses in him a trustworthiness in a world bereft of trust. As the lovers each realize the impossibility of a future, their attachment intensifies. Stabbed and dying, Kuroda tells of the horrors he's witnessed; Li holds him in her arms: ""I said he could forget it now, that I would remember."" Using spare, unadorned prose, Binstock manages evocatively to juxtapose the occupying army's totalitarian cosmos, predicated on murder, rape, and the absolute lack of safety, with the tender realm temporarily created by these two damaged but deep-feeling lovers. A debut unrelenting in its rendition of wartime cruelty, but tempered with a bracing reminder that deep human feelings can and will sprout from scorched earth.

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1995
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Soho