A striking debut explores the impact of a childhood tragedy on three siblings.
In 1958, when Henry, Lauren, and Winston Cooper are ten, seven, and five, respectively, their infant sister Sally dies in her crib while the children are alone with her. As their mother sinks into depression and their engineer father retreats to work, Winston begins destroying objects in the house; he fights frequently with Lauren, who’s having a hard time reconciling her religious instruction with her baby sister’s senseless death. (A delightfully cranky nun makes the Catholic case persuasively but not definitively.) Henry is acting even stranger; he believes that he has “slipped into [the] head” of Suriyu Asagao, a Hiroshima survivor who died from radiation poisoning but whose spirit remains in limbo—“trapped by my attachments to my last life and unable to go onto my next,” Asagao informs us in one of several interpolated monologues that suggest Henry’s belief is not necessarily crazy. The author scrupulously leaves the question open: she shows us the psychological needs met by Henry’s shadow life and offers possible medical explanations through Robin, an emergency-room doctor Lauren eventually marries; yet she paints such a compelling portrait of Henry as the loving, peaceful reconciler who holds his fragmented family together that we understand why Lauren and Winston join him each year to celebrate the Japanese Festival of the Dead in hopes of soothing Asagao's restless spirit. As the narrative progresses across several decades, we see that the siblings remain traumatized by Sally’s death, which opened their eyes to a world of suffering inflicted by a God who is “silent, demanding, punitive, irrational, enormous.” This is never the whole story, for the novel is suffused with the characters’ love for each other, but love threatens not to be enough as Lauren’s marriage falters and Asagao’s presence becomes more intrusive. Readers who want clear answers will be frustrated by the ending, but it will haunt those who can accept ambiguity and uncertainty.
A fascinating blend of family drama and metaphysical inquiry.