Novel Reviews (Books set in different lands or cultures)

PLUM WINE

plumwine

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s set in the 60’s and is written in the point of view of a Tokyo university teacher, an American newbie to Japan, named Barbara. She lives in Hiroshima and while she pursues a mystery she also slowly uncovers the human legacy of the horrific day the bomb was dropped.

Barbara receives a shocking bequest. After a colleague, who’d welcome and supported her in the university job, suddenly dies, Barbara receives, at her mentor’s stipulation, a chest filled with bottles of homemade plum wine. When she unwraps the rice paper wrapped around a bottle, Barbara discovers calligraphy covers it. Each subsequent bottle also–one writing for each of the last two decades of her friend’s life. Barbara’s quest to understand these writings and why them came to her usher her into a new world.

To portrayals of Japan, I bring a critic’s eyes, evaluating it by my own knowledge of that land and culture. I have close ties to many Japanese and spent a six year stint in Tokyo and Kobe.

Davis-Gardner’s portrayal of the Japanese way of thinking and relationships delighted me with its accuracy and warmth. Its descriptive language brought back my admiration for the Japanese aesthetic and sated my hunger for evocative language. Playful passages triggered my laughter. Suspense kept me excitedly reading onwards: what would the writing on these plum wine bottles reveal? And how will Barbara’s infatuation with a young Japanese man play out?

The protagonist rang true to me, her longings, curiosity and missteps. The loneliness and confusion that overwhelms her I also experienced. The author portrays well what it’s like to live in a foreign land, especially where the ideals and the values lived by differ from the typical Westerner’s. Work takes priority over relationships. A man’s relationship his mother taking priority over a spouse or lover. And,in a world unknown to us Americans, the reader experiences through Barbara’s encounters, the enduring shame and sadness experienced by survivors of Hiroshima.