This is a story which having read it feels so fragile a tale to tell. It is a book for all those who love novels based in or about the Second World War. What made this different for me was the fact, it is based in Seattle, America and this is about the Chinese and Japanese citizens there and how the war affected them personally.
Imagine being born in a country and to all intents and purposes being an American Citizen but having Chinese descendants makes you different. Henry a twelve year old boy is this and not only do his parents want him to be American and to go to the well known Caucasian school, they want him to only speak English and not Cantonese. Very difficult when his parents speak little English, a fact that alienates him from his parents. He is to be Chinese in America but an American faithful to China, a country he has never visited. Despite this ‘Americanising’ Henry also has to wear a badge to say he his Chinese. Why? Because of the Japanese. Because of Pearl Harbour. Because of War.
Keiko is Japanese and she is also twelve. She was born in America and to all intents and purposes an American Citizen. Her parents treat her differently, she cannot even speak Japanese but she is not made to choose between being Japanese or American. She is American. Keiko does not wear a badge, because since the bombing of Pearl Harbour, all Japanese especially those who live by the coast are suspected of being spies and therefore need to be interned into camps.
A friendship strikes up between these two what others see as outcasts. They are treated in school as such, and have to do all the menial tasks such as helping with the school lunches, cleaning, emptying bins – that is their role in school. They put up with the bullying and when their friendship becomes stronger, Henry has to put up with being accused of fraternising with the enemy. An enemy who has never even set foot in Japan.
Move forward to the 1980s and Henry is now older and recently widowed. Out walking one day he sees a familiar landmark of his childhood, The Panama Hotel being brought back to life, and from the basement come a number of items from years previous. Japanese items which were hidden by the residents before they were taken to the internment camps. Can Henry find his past amongst these items?
The book moves backwards and forwards between these two time periods as we see the story develop and come to its conclusion. What this book does is show a piece of social history that I knew nothing about, and I am ashamed to say that. I had no idea that such things had gone on. This book also has a place in showing race and prejudice. Where just by your birth you are automatically guilty of whatever crime someone wants to accuse you of. No matter what. All the supporting characters are relevant and bring strength to the overall story and what is happening to the main characters.
The title is somewhat appropriate. The “bitter” is the treatment of people because of their background, their skin colour. The bitter aftertaste of how you watch and can do nothing as whole communities are moved and destroyed. It is this that for me gives the book a certain frailty. The “sweet” is the innocence of love, so fragile, of waiting for that one person and never forgetting about them. Frailty is there in Henry and Keiko’s love, so delicate it could be broken at any point. The love of parents and their offspring, the love of music and being free.
An excellent book, and if you want to perhaps venture away from novels set in England during the Second World War period, then start with this book you will not be disappointed.
I made the assumption that I was reading a novel written by a woman. It had that tenderness and I know I harp on about it in the book but the frailty that you would think a woman could write. I was reading a book by man. The only reason for mentioning this, has been some posts lately around blogs about how many books you read that are by men and how many by women. Normally I am not that bothered, but with this book I made the wrong assumption. I should just go back to not being bothered I feel!
Jamie Ford says on his blog that “he is a dude”. Perhaps others have made the assumption as well? He is also one of Amazon’s Rising New Stars and this is where I kept seeing this novel pop up on my screen! Go across and read the page on Amazon, not only will it tell you about Jamie and his background but also about his writing and his next book. One to look out for I believe.