During the American occupation, the citizens of Japan were encouraged to apply directly to General MacArthur – “if you have a problem, write a letter, this is what democracy means” – and so write they did. MacArthur received over 500,000 letters, letters of entreaty, rage, gratitude, complaint, even adoration.
Twelve-year-old Fumi Tanaka has a problem – her beautiful and beloved older sister, Sumiko, has disappeared. Determined to find her, Fumi enlists the help of her new classmate Aya, forcibly repatriated with her father from Canada after the war. Together, they write to MacArthur and deliver their letter into the reluctant hands of Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American GI whose job it is to translate the endless letters.
Before reading The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake, I had no idea about post-war Japan’s American occupation. I had even traveled to Japan, so I don’t know how I missed the enormity of the changes that occurred in Japan during the period of occupation.
I think that post-war novels deserve as much attention as war-time novels. In fact, post-war novels may even be more important. War-time novels show us the atrocities, and the indomitable human spirit that survives it; but post-war novels show us what happens when those down-trodden spirits have to rebuild, often under the boot of the victors.
“Absence was not emptiness or nothingness, she had discovered. It was the opposite. Insistent and ever-present.”
When I started reading The Translation of Love, I devoured it – partially because of the deluge of new information about a place I mistakenly thought I knew, and partially because the premise of the novel was wonderful: a young girl seeking her older sister who has gone missing; and the suggestion that the older sister is involved in some less-than-desirable business to keep her family fed.
Although the novel is fictional, it is clearly well-researched (further proven in the author’s note at the end). I was consumed. On the one hand, the Japanese who must adjust to their new “democracy” and who are essentially being re-educated, from censorship of their former history, to children being taught that in the past, the history and geography they were taught was “wrong” or “bad”.
On the other hand, the struggles of the repatriated Japanese, who knew themselves as American or Canadian, but were instead taken to internment camps during the war, and thereafter many felt they had no choice but the accept repatriation. Repatriated, they were seen as foreigners in Japan, too.
Told in alternating points of view, The Translation of Love covers both of these situations, from the eyes of both children and adults. Unfortunately the downside of the multiple POVs and the fairly short chapters is that none of the characters become fully three-dimensional to the reader. They all are defined by one or two characteristics only, which is a real disappointment as the author has the makings of great characters.
Although I devoured the first 50%, the last half of the book went more slowly for me. It was during this half that I felt Kutsukake had lost sight of her plot. Nothing was driving the plot anymore, and at the same time her characters had to a large extent lost their agency and were really just floating around. I had lost my emotional investment in the characters, which is a real pity because sisterly love is a very underutilised force in novels; and there was no tension to propel my interest.
Another thing that is just now starting to bother me is that the prologue shows a skit of General MacArthur’s son with his father. But actually, that is the last time the son really features in the novel. I feel like the prologue sets the reader up for something, but that something never comes to pass.
All in all, I would recommend this book, but with caution. It’s really worth the read especially for those who enjoy historical fiction, and I don’t regret reading it. But it certainly has room for improvement.
Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book via Netgalley and Random House UK in exchange for an honest review.