TALKING TO THE DEAD by Sylvia Watanabe


Email this review


 A first collection of interconnected stories set in the coastal village of Luhi, on the island of Maui, by a Japanese- American born and raised in Hawaii. Point of view alternates gracefully among villagers of different age, sex, and race-- Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian, Hawaiian and bapa, or mixed. In the O. Henry-winning title story, a young Japanese woman, weak of stomach, insists upon apprenticing herself to Auntie Talking to the Dead, a kahuna who prepares bodies for burial, because `` was she who understood the wholeness of things--the significance of directions and colors.'' A prevailing theme here is the conflict between the ``wholeness'' of traditional lifestyle and so-called progress. In the powerful ``The Caves of Okinawa,'' a Japanese-American WW II veteran tries to give his son, on leave from Vietnam, a ticket to Canada but is thwarted by his wife, who, though she, too, lives for their son, cannot face the dishonor of desertion. The father's war trauma involved his participation in the dynamiting of caves in which Japanese soldiers and villagers hid. Then, in ``A Spell of Kona Weather,'' we learn that the son has been killed in Vietnam. ``Spell'' seems incomplete, however; and, similarly, ``Certainty''--in which a young pregnant woman learns from her elderly mother what really happened the day her father left--seems at once too obvious and troubled by half-raised questions. ``A Summer Waltz,'' two children playing dress-up, is no more than a fragment; but fully realized pieces include the lovely ``Anchorage'' (a daughter and her grandmother fight a losing battle against Alzheimer's in her father), and ``The Prayer Lady'' (an old man wants to leave with his dead son on the night of the bon dance, when the Japanese send the dead spirits back to the sea). With her unearthing of the heartbreak that lies beneath Hawaii's sunny landscape, Watanabe makes an uneven but promising debut.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-385-41887-6
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1992