My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've long been a fan of Isabel Allende's inspiring fiction. Her soul-baring stories most often feature female protagonists and are told through multigenerational family sagas. She continues that tradition with The Japanese Lover.
Allende's method is to tell her story through the voice of the all-knowing third person narrator, but, although the narrator may know all, it is revealed to us very slowly, as one after another of the narrative's layers is peeled away. Her style of writing is deceptively simple and unadorned. At least, that is the feeling that I get reading the books in translation. One has to acknowledge that this may be at least in part attributable to the art of the translator, in this case two translators, Mike Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.
In The Japanese Lover, all the major characters are guarding secrets that are considered shameful at the time. In the course of the novel, all of those secrets are uncovered and proven to be not so shameful after all. The ability of the holders of the secrets to share them with others who love them eventually offers a lifting of their burdens and redemption for their spirits.
As always in an Allende novel, spirits are important in the telling of the story - both the spirits of the living and those of the dead that are always present with those who loved them in life. Magical realisim rules and it is a benevolent monarch.
The main characters here are Alma Belasco and Irina Bazili. Alma Mendel had begun life in Poland with her Jewish family just before the beginning of World War II. As her parents saw the shadows of the coming war lengthening, they determined to get Alma out of Poland and into a safe haven. They sent her to San Francisco to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle there, the Belascos. It was there that eight-year-old Alma met the two people who would be her best friends and more for life, her cousin Nathaniel and the son of the family's gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. They were her solace in those first bleak years. Then the unthinkable happened.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant in the country and a political decision was made to send citizens who had been born in Japan or were of Japanese descent and born in this country to internment camps. The Fukuda family was swept up and sent with thousands of others to one of those camps, Topaz in Utah. Alma and Ichimei attempted to stay in touch through letters, but Ichi's were heavily censored. He was a gifted artist and he started sending drawings instead.
Allende describes the internment camps and the struggle of the people imprisoned there to keep up their morale and to prove to their captors that they were loyal Americans. This part of the story has some sad parallels to the plight of refugees and immigrants to this country in 2015 and the way they are portrayed by certain politicians seeking to curry favor with their racist base. It is chilling to realize that this is exactly the way that the Japanese were portrayed in order to justify their internment.
We learn Alma's story through her much older self, a woman in her eighties living in Lark House, an eccentric assisted living facility, as she nears the end of her long and eventful life. We learn that Alma and Ichimei have carried on a love affair for more than fifty years, reuniting again and again throughout their lives, in spite of their own separate marriages and the families they created.
It is at Lark House that Alma meets the second woman whose haunted life rounds out this tale.
Irina Bazili is a Moldavan refugee who is a care worker at the assisted living center. She has her own troubled past and secrets that she is hiding. She is assigned to help Alma and the two forge a friendship. Moreover, Alma's grandson, Seth, meets and falls in love with Irina. He steadfastly pursues her even though she does not give him the slightest encouragement.
Both Seth and Irina love Alma and they are intrigued by mysterious gifts and letters that she receives. They do some investigating and come to believe that the gifts and letters are coming from Ichi and that he and Alma are continuing their passionate affair into their ninth decade.
The narrative shifts from past to present and back again from the 1940s through 2013, and through it all, the notion of a spirit world hovers. That notion is finally made real in the novel's poignant denouement, and, as is Allende's trademark, she leaves us with these progressive and hopeful spirits.
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