Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

Despite having previously read Isabel Allende’s memoirs, The Japanese Lover is my first experience with her fiction.  I knew that Allende often uses “magical realism” in her novels, and because of my hit and miss reaction to that literary device in the past, I was reluctant to give her fiction much of a chance.  Admittedly, The Japanese Lover contains no elements of magical realism, but it so impressed me with the author’s story-telling talent that I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

The Japanese Lover is Alma Belasco’s story.  Because of her parents’ desire to keep her safe, Alma moved in 1939 to San Francisco to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle just as Poland was on the verge of being overrun by Nazi Germany.  There the little girl met Ichimei Fukuda, son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and the children almost immediately formed a bond that would tightly link them together for the rest of their lives.  Alma and Ichimei spent as much time together as possible until war again intervened in Alma’s life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Suddenly Ichimei and his father disappeared, and except for a few highly censored letters from Ichimei, Alma lost touch with her best friend.

Wars do end, of course, and the survivors try to begin their lives anew.  Alma and Ichimei would find their lives intersecting again and again over the next several decades but their love, passionate as it was, was forced to live in the shadows.  Interracial love affairs, much less interracial marriages, were taboo in the culture in which they lived, and that taboo was not likely to change in time to do the lovers any good. 

Author Isabel Allende
As The Japanese Lover begins, Alma is living in an extended care facility designed for those approaching the ends of their lives.  No one, including her grandson Seth, knows her whole story – and she has no intention of sharing it with anyone.  But that changes when Irina Bazili, a young woman hired to assist the elderly with their daily routines, comes into Alma’s life.  Irina has a past of her own, one so traumatic that she is finding it impossible to deal with it successfully.  And when the two women realize just how much they have in common, they reluctantly begin to share their secrets.

The Japanese Lover alternates flashbacks and the present to tell the story of these two women, one of them old and approaching the end of her life, the other young and trying to deal with the long life she still has ahead of her.  In Alma, Ichimei, and Irina, the author has created three fully-fleshed characters, characters whose lives and experiences the reader will remember for a long time.  I plan now to explore Allende’s earlier fiction to see what I’ve been missing all these years.

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