During the past two weeks of peaceful holiday in Sweden I’ve been lucky enough to read an array of books on behalf of NetGalley. Four particularly were striking, unusual, starkly different and therefore my next posts will feature these books. I start with the amazing and wonderful A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

mutualFrom the very first few words I knew this book would be one to cherish, to love – one that continues to live within my heart days and weeks  later. 

The story weaves between the present and past, between Japan and America as Amaterasu Takahashi is forced to re-live the earlier life of her long-lost daughter killed along with thousands of others as a  B29 dropped a nuclear bomb Nagasaki on 9th August 1945 at 11.02.

The story opens with the appearance of a man on the widow’s  door-step claiming to be her grandson, Hideo, who was killed in the attack. Disbelieving, she is handed documents to prove the veracity of his statement. So begins the epic sweeping novel; at times brutal, at times ethereal.

Amaterasu Takahashi is the main narrator, however this is effectively interspersed with Yoku’s (her daughter) diary as well as letters from Sato –  local doctor at the time – who caused the irreparable rift between mother and daughter.

Secrets and lies are at the core of so many novels and this one is no exception. Rather the secrets withheld and lies told are intricately, devastatingly interwoven rising to a crescendo of revelation and understanding in a story of family, love, strife and war. 

I could not fail but be pulled in by the heart-felt words early on.

‘Dear Daughter, the life I sought for you was not a bad one, was it? Could you understand why I acted the way I did? Could you see I had no choice? Only child, did you forgive me in those final moments? Did you forgive yourself?’

It was not only the story that ensnared me, the author – previously a language teacher in Japan – powerfully transported me into Japan; its detailed life and customs beautifully portrayed and conveyed. Each chapter begins  with a Japanese word or custom followed by a detailed description. Often this technique can slow the narrative and become cumbersome. However Jackie Copleton’s notes only heighten the sense of the culture and our understanding of the characters within her book and the choices they made and the lives they lived. Beyond the people and its culture, Nagasaki particularly is brilliantly brought to life at its cusp of transformation from the old order to modern city.   

‘Nagasaki, the city growing like a giant metal insect across the land.’ A city living in the glory of its ship-building era, an industry that would lead to its obliteration. ‘It felt as if the world’s heart had exploded…Never find the language for such and agony of noise and the silence that followed.’

Heart-warming. Heart-felt. Heart-wrenching. These are three words I jotted down as I finished the book and which sum it up perfectly. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. No wonder it was long-listed for The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. My only surprise is that it didn’t make the short-list. 

badge_proreaderI was honoured to be accepted as a reviewer by Random House UK for ‘A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding’ on behalf of NetGalley.

Rating:              5 out of 5!

Book Price:       £ 4.99.    Kindle

                             £ 12.08   Hardback  (amazon)

Publisher:        Random House UK



  1. Anonymous

    Hi Annika.
    I bought this book on your recommendation, and have just finished reading it. You were right; it is a very good story, very well told. That’s not an easy subject to tackle, with all the ramifications, but the author pulls it off brilliantly. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Thank you! After having read a couple of posts on how to write book reviews I went ahead and wrote them in my own style – so glad you like it. So far I am not on goodreads however if I do join I’ll let you know. Many thanks

  2. Wonderful review and subject! In the US we don’t totally understand the after effects of
    dropping the Atomic bomb, the lives it changed and the stories that never were. Even in this country during the war, Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps and lost everything just as their relatives in Japan lost everything including their lives. Yet if you go to Japan, these people are so forgiving. It makes you think. I will certainly read this book. Thanks, Annika…

    1. I don’t think the lack of understanding of the effects after the atomic bombs is limited to the US – it seems to me a surprisingly lack of discussion across the world. The book covers it so well, from an ordinary day shopping destroyed by the bombing, to the confusion, shock and loss that follows. I think you’ll find the book very interesting and rewarding. As for the internment of Japanese during the war, the same happened to Germans and other foreigners in the UK as well…Have you been to Japan? You write of their forgiveness as if from personal experience?

      1. No, I had friends who lived there for a couple of years and we talked allot about this. Also I have a copy of Joseph Campbell’s diary about Japan right after the war. He was amazed by the culture and their ability to forgive especially themselves for there share of the atrocities of the war.

          1. If i have a guru it would be Joseph Campbell. I’ve read almost everything he’s written. The monomyth is from his first book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lukus used the monomyth as the basis for his Star Wars movies.

  3. That sounds like an extraordinary book. The war, the atomic bomb, such a powerful subject. I have always wanted to visit Japan as I have also read some wonderful descriptions of the country and the culture. Thanks for the review, I may have to add this one to my list (time is always my enemy there….) I have recently finished one book that I am wanting to write a review for 🙂

    1. You’re right there is such a wonderful mix in this book from before WWII to present time – with a fully immersive experience of all eras of Japan. The description of the actual atomic bomb is so well-written. The bombing or pikadon as it is called in Japan (PIKA means brilliant light and DON means boom) is described from the viewpoint of Amaterasu on a normal day and even though you know what’s coming the confusion and shock are captured brilliantly. I hope you get a chance to read this but understand time is always an element – this holiday was an ideal chance for me to catch up. I’ll look forward to reading your book review.

      1. I have the habit instilled in me as I grew up of always taking photos everywhere. Sometimes to the consternation of the others but at least our children do likewise. It is good to record those memories. I am impressed with your book reviews. Thanks for the comment.

  4. What a beautiful review, Annika. Some of my favorite books are those that cross cultures and get so deeply into character and the complexity of relationships. This sounds like one of those books. Can’t wait to see what else you read 🙂

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, Diana. It was a wonderful book so I wanted my review to reflect that fact. Some books that write about other cultures can be rather too prescriptive and like some historical novels wanting to ‘show off’ all the facts at the cost of characterisation and plot – not a mistake in this book as it was so perfectly balanced.

  5. I’ve been meaning to pop over for a visit. Just can’t seem to catch up with everything. Wonderful book review. I’ll stop by and check out more here. I’m going to have to move out my clothes soon to make room for all the books. There are so many I still want to read.

    1. I know what you mean – I have meant to look at your blog for ages and finally got a chance. I’m so glad you liked the review and hope you enjoy my blog – not just book reviews also about writing, my novel writing experience, books, life…rather eclectic mix. Recently I revamped my study and in the process managed to clear some space by giving away a box of books – the heart-ache though…it took ages to decide which ones. Your way sounds better – make space by moving clothes or something else out of the way!

  6. What a wonderful story line. It reminds me of an experience my mother-in-law had when visiting Japan. She met a man who claimed to be her son, the result of her husband’s mistress. Though she refused to believe him, she couldn’t let go of that possibility.

    1. Oh, what a story, Jacqui – this sends shivers up my back. How strange and unsettling for your mother-in-law. What a great start for a book though…thinks the writer inside me…

    1. As with all books there is a fine line between writing too much detail in a book and becoming didactic about a different culture rather than just using it as a setting – this book has no problem in this respect and I loved the fact how easily I was immersed into the Japanese culture, its history, its society whilst hooked by the unfolding story.

    1. Thank you, Jill. It is a very rewarding read and I don’t say that lightly. I know what you mean about stack – my books to read just keeps on growing…never a boring moment though!

  7. Peter R

    Thanks Annika. I do tend to follow your recommendations (no pressure there!), so Amazon will make another sale this afternoon.

    1. Oh, that’s brilliant, Peter. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book – it’s one of those where you just have to read one more chapter…two hours later you’re still reading away.

  8. delphini510

    Such a wonderful and strong review Annika. I feel transported already.
    How can I now not buy this book.
    You have made Jackie Copleton proud and going by some of your earlier reviews you
    are an honest and imaginative reviewer.

    Heading for amazon now.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment. I cannot be anything but honest in my reviews and must admit I have started a couple of NetGallet books which I could not even finish so it is just best to say nothing in those cases. Enjoy the travels – soon you’ll be engrossed in the world of Amaterasu and her Japan.

    1. I’m the same, Marje and I became absolutely immersed in Japan in this book – one of those that when you finish reading after a while you look up and wonder where you are!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s