This beautiful novel by Gail Tsukiyama chronicles the life of two brotheres, Kenji and Hiroshi, who become teenagers in Tokyo during the 1940s. Orphaned and raised by their grandparents, they live through the war, the occupation, and the years of Westernization that follow.
While more and more Japanese women start wearing Western dress and many old customs are put aside by the younger generations, both brothers end up choosing careers steeped in tradition: Kenji becomes a maker of masks for the Noh theater and Hiroshi becomes one of the nation’s top sumo wrestlers.
Though this book is definitely a historical novel, the historical facts aren’t the meat of the text–they simply comprise the cocoon in which her characters develop, struggle and grow. The portraits Tsukiyama paints are many: the boys’ grandmother Fumiko, who silently endures the grief of the occupation, losing her closest friend and trying to stretch their meager supplies of food; the boys’ grandfather who is slowly becoming blind; the owner of the sumo stable where Hiroshi trains, who loses his wife during the fire bombhing of Tokyo; the master mask-maker Akira who becomes Kenji’s sensei and teaches him the art of carving the wood and bringing the faces of the Noh theater to life, a man who is tempted by the comforts of marriage to a young widow he cares for, knowing all the while that his true love lies elsewhere.
(Side note: “Bow to you sensei!“)
(Sorry guys–Napoleon Dynamite moment. Don’t mean to ruin the mood, but it had to come out.)
As Kenji and Hiroshi’s careers bloom, their lives become a balancing act between tradition and change. They both lose women they love–through accident and through neglect–they both struggle to find happiness and meaning–in short, they both live.
Gail Tsukiyama’s writing style is clear and direct, making her novels almost effortless to read. And yet no richness is lost because of this–through her straightforward narration, all the subtleties of each character emerge nonetheless. Midway through the novel, Hiroshi’s grandmother says “Don’t you think every face tells its own story?” Hiroshi answers “Like a book?” His grandmother responds “More like a poem. If you study it long enough, you’ll soon find its meaning.” That’s exactly what Gail Tsukiyama does–she paints simple portraits of people, brushing traits here and there like a painter on a canvas–and as the book progresses and you gaze at these characters as they move through the story, the meaning behind the painting emerges in all its layers and complexity.
Pick up this book at your library, on your e-reader, or whatever your method may be–I think you guys will really enjoy this one. And if you like it, Gail Tsukiyama has written a ton of other great novels as well–“Women of the Silk” and “The Language of Threads” (both of which I loved), “The Samurai’s Garden” (awesome), etc. She’s worth checking out!