Lead Review plus author QA
- Book: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
- Location: Nagasaki, United States (USA)
- Author: Jackie Copleton
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, novel set in Nagasaki.
This is a novel that ticks so many boxes. It is well written, thoughtful, insightful and is set against the backdrop of the atomic bombing of the city of Nagasaki on 9th August 1945, shortly after 11 am. In Japanese the word Pikadon – the term for the explosion – is now well integrated into Japanese vocabulary, PIKA meaning brilliant light and DON expressing the sound of boom.
Strikingly, the author has created a feel in her writing that is singularly Japanese to the Western eye, which in itself is a true feat. The observations, the style and the composition all conjure up the unique story of Amaterasu Takahashi’s family, before, during and in the aftermath of Pikadon.
On the day of the strike, Amaterasu was due to meet her daughter Yuko in the cathedral in the city, but she missed her bus and got caught up in the devastating chaos that ensued. Yuko clearly died and grandson Hideo went missing. Unable to bear the loss and the destruction around her, Amaterasu decided to relocate to California, where in the present someone purporting to be Hideo appears on her doorstep.
The complex story – beautifully brought together in the capable hands of this talented author – moves smoothly between Amaterasu’s chequered past, and into her daughter’s life; at the heart is Sato, a doctor and erstwhile friend of her Amaterasu’s husband, Kenzo.
Not only is this a book about Japan but it is also a seminal story of loss and love. The story is in part a meditation on the nature of love, in all its forms; and just how complex this human emotion can be, the fall-out so far reaching. And yet, what does love truly mean…..? And loss, it appears in this novel in many forms, whether it is the destruction of home, the loss of a living human and the loss of what is familiar.
Simply put, it is hard to do justice to the intricate storyline in this short review.
This review first appeared on our blog and here is our author QA:
TF: I was really struck by just how ‘Japanese’ this book feels to a Western eye, small observations, little turns of phrase. How have you managed to get under the skin of Japanese culture, which can be so elusive and impenetrable?
JC: Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about the book. I saw a lad busking today. He was trying to raise cash for a trip to Japan. I hope he makes it! When I first arrived in Nagasaki at the age of 21 to teach English I was clueless about the culture. Given how young I was, my time spent in the country was hugely formative. I was sometimes homesick but, on a daily basis, also thrilled and perplexed by my strange new existence, which may explain why my memories remain so strong. My life then felt like a wonderful state of constant bamboozlement and possibility. I soaked up the sights, sounds, tastes and the lives that surrounded me. The city is dignified, vibrant and beautiful and Amaterasu’s character is meant to reflect these essential characteristics.
TF: You clearly know Nagasaki well. This is a city with a horrific history, which must still be very raw. What is your sense of how the city has come to terms with the atomic bombing in August 1945?
JC: It is often said that Hiroshima raged while Nagasaki prayed about the bombings of the respective cities. Some of my Japanese friends were involved in the peace movement; I had an adult student who was a TV producer who documented stories about the survivors; and I taught an elderly man who was a child when the bomb dropped. The Peace Park in the city is a popular place for school trips and when my parents visited me, they were given a beautiful handmade peace postcard from one child as they walked around the epicentre of the attack. Overall, the message seems to be one of forgiveness. The people I met take seriously the responsibility of being the last city to have experienced nuclear warfare. The message is a simple one: never again. I’ve read accounts of other people who just want to leave the past behind. They say, ‘Let’s move on, what’s done is done’. But I’m sure anger must remain for others who lost loved ones. How could it not? The youngest survivors of the bomb are now in their seventies. Soon that connection to the past will be gone. Who will keep their stories alive?
TF: Sato, a doctor, is one of the characters at the heart of the story. Flawed and at times he is quite spineless, yet I sense his heart was in the right place. And someone who conformed very much to the mores of Japanese society of the era. How did you research the era, and bring him into being?
JC: When it came to writing about Japan during the Second World War, I read many testimonies of survivors of the atomic bomb, Japanese soldiers and ordinary people to get a sense of how life might have been. Every titbit I uncovered was fascinating. I could have researched this book for years. I wanted Sato to be painfully disappointing to almost everyone he meets: his wife, lovers and friends. But clearly there is something attractive about him, despite his selfishness and apparent shallowness. As with Amaterasu, he does develop some self-awareness, but too late. I can’t say too much about his work during the war but I wanted to explore how it might feel to carry out terrible deeds – and then have to live with them despite never being held accountable.
TF: Japan can be a hugely inspiring country, yet at the same time it can feel very alien. Please tell us a bit more about how you feel about the country and what top tips and places would you suggest for anyone travelling to the country?
JC: I owe the country so much. I figured out I wanted to become a journalist after attending the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which inspired me to write a small article for my local newspaper back in Britain. Japan is the reason I wrote A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding. I wouldn’t be a published author without its influence. I loved how respectful the culture was. There was a gentleness and yet a great sense of fun and mischief. The people I met loved a party and a festival! Japan is beautiful. Choose any one of the four islands and just go for it. Every minute will be an assault on your senses. My favourite island is Kyushu, where Nagasaki is located. You can climb hills, or eat oysters as you watch a volcano smoulder, or relax in hot springs, or eat okonomiyaki at the beach, or scoff bar food at at a street stall. Wander into a restaurant, or bar, or museum, say hello and you’ll be welcome with open arms.
TF: Do you have any particularly memorable/unusual experiences from your time of living in Japan?
JC: Well, yes, not all of them fit for polite company! I did a lot of firsts in Japan, from salsa dancing to sushi eating. I still chortle at the memory of me taking my one and only Japanese dance class, when I was about one foot taller and several stone heavier than anyone else wrapped in their kimonos. Or needing a mountain rescue after trying snowboarding for the first time in Hokkaido. Or the time I was asked to host a reggae festival. Or the first time I used a Japanese toilet. Or my first karaoke attempt. Rod Stewart, Do You Think I’m Sexy? Apparently not, according to the crowd in the bar. Thankfully, there were places I never had disasters: the restaurants, apart from the time I nearly choked on a meatball. Oh the food. Every meal a delight. Even the jellyfish. At least, that’s what my dining companion said the crunchy translucent stringy things were.
TF: What is next for you in terms of both writing and travel?
JC: Tomorrow, I’m off to Argyll and Bute in Scotland, specifically, my parents-in-law’s caravan on Loch Long near Dunoon. I appear to be setting my new novel in this area, with a bit of 20th century Ireland thrown in for good measure. In a couple of weeks, I have my summer holiday, which for the fourth year in a row will be Majorca. What a beautiful island, the hills, the pines, the cliffs! I could easily live there. Dear Lotto, make it so. And I do want to write about my time living in the United Arab Emirates, which has imprinted a whole new set of sandy memories in my head. I’m finding the writing of the second novel challenging. Probably lots of writers type out their first book never expecting it to be published. And so when you do see it in print, suddenly the whole escapade gets a bit more serious. But in the end, hopefully the only thing that matters is telling a good story set in an evocative place. Travel, reading and writing, they’re all about escape, education and entertainment, whether you’re lying in your bed or a sun lounger.