” To build new kitchens and garages, roads and cars and business connections until the old, war-torn city was no longer visible—any more than the broken people who had scraped out their lives there in the days following the Surrender. That Japan—defeated Japan—was now part of an unspeakable past; one its inhabitants saw in nearly as mythical terms as the Emperor’s once-presumed ‘divinity.’ It was simply—before. ” (Part IX, Los Angeles, 1962)
Set against the Tokyo bombing in 1945 during the Second World War is The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a story of three families, Japanese and American, whose lives interweave and connect for almost 30 years. Epstein chooses to narrate through different time fragments in third-person perspective. First there is Cameron Richards who stumbles into love, marries Lacy, and becomes a pilot. Yoshi Kobayashi grows up speaking three languages and playing piano, under the tutelage of her mother Hana, who carries herself in a way that defies the Japanese standard of beauty and decorum. Against her will she marries below herself, to Kenji, a builder who aids the Japanese army in Manchuria as the Japanese assembles its overwhelming army.
Grinning, Kenji said something appropriately dismissive while Anton tried to imagine how this tiny East/West wonder had come to be. Of course, Hana had confirmed for them the marriage was arranged. But why would it have been arranged with Kenji? The differences went well beyond Old Japan and New Japan. (Part II, Karuizawa, 1935)
Hana is by far the most intriguing and interesting character in the novel but, to my dismay, has been neglected in the end. Raised in London, fluent in French, she’s an intellectual, a cosmopolitan. She confides in with Anton Reynolds, the prominent architect who is in love with the Japanese culture, tradition, and aesthetics, that her life has started dying when she married. For about two years Anton and Hana carry on an affair—until America declares war on Japan and Anton is summoned by American military to help prepare the devastating fire bombing of Tokyo.
Yoshi had wished only that her whole life could be like this—that she could be a normal girl, going out with her almost-normal mother, doing things normal families did together. (Part VI, Tokyo, 1945)
The novel is told in linguistic snap shots and photography plays a crucial role of the plotline involving the architect’s gay son, Billy. He later becomes an Occupation officer in Tokyo and reunites with the grown-up Yoshi. Despite the full circle at the end when all these lives finally come together in a tidy bundle, there is a lot left unsaid—especially who has become of Yoshi’s parents. Hana is accused of being a spy and her father a war criminal. That said, as the book winds down, we discover how people overcome hardships they dealt with during the war. Redolent in this well-researched historical fiction is the invincible human resiliency.
378 pp. W. W. Norton. Adanced reading Copy. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]