Three generations suffer war’s devastation.
It’s 1975, and English professor Hideo Takagawa is dreading a visit from his grandniece, Helen, age nine. His sister Ume died shortly after giving birth to Helen’s mother, Anna. Son of a cruel, distant father and a gentle mother killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, Hideo returned from WWII to his hometown, near Hiroshima, to find the family silkworm business in ruins. His father has disowned Ume, a comfort woman in a Japanese-government-sponsored brothel for American occupying forces. Knowing Ume’s mixed-race child will be shunned in Japan, Hideo places Anna with an orphanage specializing in finding American adoptive parents. The story shifts to San Francisco, where grownup Anna, a borderline psychotic, locks her children, Helen and Ken, in a closet, and scares them with stories of a vindictive ghost named Shizuka. Anna’s war-veteran husband, James, scarred by Vietnam horrors, withdraws from his family, and Anna breaks down after retrieving the children from camp. James’s brother Steve and wife Mary take in the children, providing their first taste of unconditional love. Steve resolves to crack the puzzle of Anna’s mental illness and takes Helen to Japan to investigate his sister-in-law’s childhood. Hideo and his wife Chiyo, who once worked at the orphanage, take Helen and Steve to Hachiman shrine, where they learn that Shizuka was not only Anna’s namesake, but a heroic 12th-century temple dancer. Chiyo also is haunted by war: Her mother died during the exodus of Japanese colonists from Manchuria. Helen’s point-of-view sections are limited to the naïve, quotidian perceptions of a child. Hideo’s narrative is more incisive and insightful, but the quest for the smoking gun in Anna’s past lacks driving conflict. Anna and James remain ciphers—unfortunate, since a story whose central enigma is a couple’s failure as parents and partners demands more than cursory character sketches.
A diffident debut from poet Taniguchi.