Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Title:  A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Author:  Jackie Copleton
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0143128256 / 978-0143128250

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program and NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Even the kindness of the half-light could not hide his disfigurement."

Favorite Quote:  "You live with loneliness long enough and it becomes a kind of company."

"There can be no words for what we heard that day. There must never be. To give this sound a name might mean it could happen again. What word can capture the roar of every thunderstorm you might have heard, every avalanche and volcano and tsunami that you might have seen tear across the land, every city consumed by flames and waves and winds? Never find the language for such an agony of noise and the silence that followed." These are the words with which this book describes the Pikadon. In Japanese, "pika" means bright light, and "don" means boom. In World War II, with the atomic bomb, the word pikadon was born to describe that which can never truly be described.

For the Allies, the atomic bomb helped end the War and helped save many Allied lives. For the Japanese, the atomic bomb killed hundreds and thousands of people - from the immediate impact, from injuries sustained, and even decades later from the exposure to the radiation. It was a disaster of unimaginable scale created and inflicted by man.

For Amaterasu Takahashi, it destroys her life for she and her husband Kenzo are certain they lost their daughter Yuko and their young grandson Hideo that day. The two leave Nagasaki behind for they cannot live constantly surrounded by the reminders of their loss. They move far, far away to the United States. They bury the past but cannot leave it behind. Amaterasu spends her life not just grieving but grappling with the guilt of "What if?" What if she had made different choices? Would her daughter have been where she was at the moment of the bomb's arrival? Would Yuko have died?

She drowns her guilt in drinking and in refusing to let the past surface. One day, however, the past comes knocking at her door. A man comes to visit and claims to be her grandson. With him, he brings a package from his adoptive mother with an explanation of how they came to find him and where he has been all these years.

Amaterasu refuses to believe but is drawn back into the past all the same. The package Hideo brings also contains letters written to Yuko by the doctor Jomei Sato. Jomei Sato not only adopted Hideo but also has a past deeply connected to the Takahashi family. This journey to the past also forces Amaterasu to finally read Yuko's journals, which she has kept hidden since the Pikadon. These memories of the time before the Pikadon finally lead Amaterasu to her own past.

Amaterasu's reflections and memories, Yuko's letters, and Sato's letters become the narrators of this book. The point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph with no real indication of the shift, creating a tangled tale. It is difficult to follow at times and requires quiet concentration to read. This is not a book to be picked up and put down lightly. In the context of the story, however, the style works, for that tangled perspective matches the complicated, overlapping relationships between Amaterasu, Kenzo, Jomei Sato, Yuko, and Hideo.

The book is slow to start for the relationships and connections are slowly revealed throughout the book. Hints exist through the story, but the full impact is not felt until well into the book. The context of Pikadon creates an overwhelming sense of sadness and incompleteness - words left unspoken, arguments left unresolved, and loved left unexpressed.

I find myself getting more and more involved the further into the book I get until I am furiously turning pages to the end. The relationships leave me in turn cringing and in turn filled with sadness. Part of me questions the somewhat far-fetched connections as they are revealed, but part of me is carried along with the emotions. I put logic aside and let emotions carry the day. The complex relationships, the acknowledgement of a long buried past, and the sense of both loss and hope create a haunting, memorable debut novel.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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