All right, as part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’m trying to read more books that are “outside of my comfort zone” or books that I wouldn’t normally pick up. This month’s book is another one from our book club – A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding a novel by Jackie Copleton.
From the publisher, “In the tradition of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Piano Teacher, a heart-wrenching debut novel of family, forgiveness, and the exquisite pain of love.
When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?”
My Thoughts on A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Well again, this wasn’t the most happy of stories and it didn’t have the most likeable of characters. While Amaterasu is the protagonist, I would definitely call her a flawed protagonist. You both sympathize with her and, at times, strongly dislike her… or at least her actions. She strives to be the best mother, but, in my opinion at least, can come across as cold. There are a few characters that stand out to me – Kenzo and Shige – however, they’re not necessarily treated the best by other characters in the book.
One of the central topics of the book is Pikadon – or the Japanese name for the dropping of the bomb. Amaterasu lives in Nagasaki the day of the Pikadon and you hear her account of the happenings and what it does to her family. I think it was interesting to hear an account – albeit a fictional one – of this perspective of the bomb. This topic also feeds into one of the central themes of the book – atrocity. You see both the atrocity of the bombing – I will caveat that with whether or not it was a necessary or justified atrocity can be debated, but the resulting death and long lasting impacts are irrefutable. But you also hear about the atrocities committed in the war, specifically those by the Japanese upon the Chinese – including medical experimentation. I think one of the things that came across most strongly to me is the idea that atrocities are universal – no group or country is completely innocent.
But the idea of perspective brings up an interesting point – this is intended to be a fictional account but from the perspective of a Japanese person living through Pikadon. But the author is actually British… So the question becomes, does that make the story less authentic? Honestly, at first I didn’t even pay attention to the author’s name when I read the book. But the point was brought up at our book club and got me thinking – and it is something I’ve struggled with. I really appreciated understanding that (being the Japanese national) perspective on Pikadon; however, now i feel like it’s not authentic but an outsider’s interpretation of the Japanese perspective.
I did enjoy this book though, it definitely got be thinking and the author uses some fantastic literary devices – included letters written to someone’s deceased love – to tell the story of the history of the characters. I would recommend it – but encourage you to remember the perspective of the author.
I would give A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding 3 out of 5 sparkles!