November 03, 2015

The Japanese Lover - Isabel Allende

Simon & Schuster, Nov. 3, 2015.

Five Stars

Isabel Allende has been one of my favourite authors for a long time. Recently I have read two of her novels that I did not enjoy at all (Ripper and The Infinite Plan), which was so disappointing. They were average novels, good in their own way, just not up to par with my expectation of Allende. In her newest novel, The Japanese Lover, she goes back to her earlier work in both style and subject – it is large in scope and yet it describes an intricate love story. Overall, I was very impressed, and happy to see the return of the wonderful Isabel Allende.

In The Japanese Lover, Allende’s characters travel seamlessly from the past to the present and back again, in the world of memory. The flashbacks are never out of place and the plot has a natural flow. Alma, living a quiet life in a retirement home, has divested herself of all unnecessary belongings, and lives only to reflect back on her former love. She tells her story to her grandson Seth and her assistant, Irina, who has her own hidden past. Through Alma’s memories, we learn about Ichimei, the Japanese boy that stole her heart during childhood before disappearing into an internment camp during World War II. Alma and Ichimei are never truly separated, however, and he continues to write to her throughout their long lives. As he says in one of his final letters, “we have loved each other in past lives and will go on meeting in lives to come.” (p. 322)

Allende explores the hypocrisy of the many Japanese-Americans who were segregated into camps during WWII and yet still joined the U.S. Military and fought for the freedoms of their fellow Americans. Ichimei’s father left Japan because he did not want to participate in their militarized culture, yet his son, Ichimei’s brother, chooses to fight for a country that would imprison his family simply for having a Japanese heritage.

Throughout the novel, Alma is often used as a way to look back at the past and the tragedy of Japanese internment. Without the secondary plot line of Irina, Alma might be no more than a tenuous link to the past. Her interactions with Irina and Seth strengthen her voice and her ability to reflect back with brutal honesty on the choices she has made in the past. With the addition of Irina and the other characters at the retirement home, there is room for many issues to be explored in the novel. Sometimes it was distracting, but for the most part the ideas strengthened each other with their connections – ultimately, there are many different kinds of casualties of war.

I found the language of the novel to be very simple and straightforward, although this may be due to the translation. No matter how intimate the subject, the tone is always slightly detached, and removed from emotion – it gives the writing an otherworldly feel that I remember from Allende’s earlier novels. There is a distance from the characters, and it was a struggle to get to the heart of the story, but it was worth it in the end. I was kind of disappointed not to see just a little bit of the magic realism that featured in Allende’s novels such as The House of the Spirits. This was more like realism with just a hint of magic – for instance, when Ichimei is apart from Alma, “[h]is flowers grew more colorful and perfumed than ever to console him.” (p. 243)

Overall, I appreciated that the love story was so realistic. The novel confronts us with the fact that sometimes we have to accept reality – love doesn’t always conquer all. At the same time, a place for love can be carved out in unexpected places, and that is the hidden place where Alma could be with Ichimei. Alma shows us a realistic experience of growing old, and with a strong voice, she calmly reflects on her past and sets an example for Seth and Irina, who have their own challenges to overcome. As Alma’s life winds down, there is hope for the happiness of a new generation.

I received this novel from Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

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