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
From 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.
I 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