Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November 1, 2016.
Chizuru Akitani was born in Japan to an American mother, now deceased, and a Japanese father, Hiro Akutani – a famous violinist and “living national treasure.” Chizuru never felt like she fit in, especially at school. When she was twelve years old, she fatally stabbed a school bully and ended up in a juvenile detention facility, alone and disowned by her father. When she turns eighteen, Chizuru is encouraged by the Japanese government to leave the country and never return – so she moves to the United States and creates a new future for herself.
Now named Rio Silvestri, the former Chizuru is living a conventional life in Boulder, Colorado – she is married with a young daughter and a career as a nurse. In response to the tragedies of her childhood, Rio takes care of people at work, but she neglects herself and her family. Her husband and child know nothing about her past – until her father Hiro dies and she receives a mysterious package from his estate. For the first time in twenty years, Rio feels compelled to return to the country of her birth. She arrives in Japan just in time for her father’s funeral, where she meets a former teacher and learns more secrets about her past.
Revelations about her childhood inspire Rio to embark on a spiritual journey with her teacher, Danny. Their pilgrimage takes them on a difficult path to various temples where they meet a sweet young boy who is just as confused about his place in the world as Chizuru once was. The plot takes an emotional turn, bringing a sense of shocking immediacy to Rio’s journey, but her feelings are never fully fleshed out.
There is always an emotional barrier between the reader and the characters, making it difficult to relate to them. It feels very Japanese, and it is described in the book as a distance created by manners – while “honne” is how you truly feel, “tatemae” is the self that you show the world. This is a story of child-on-child violence, as seen from the perspective of a juvenile offender, and yet it is strangely cold and emotionless. The concept is provocative and intriguing, but it is missing some essential human responses.
Rio is an avid runner, and she uses this pastime to metaphorically run from her past – on her journey, she finally changes direction and begins to run forward, towards her life with her husband and daughter. Her story is one of identity, and an exploration of our ability and willingness to change. There was a lot of potential psychological depth here, but it was not completely followed through. On the positive side, the writing is lovely – sparse yet lyrical – and I felt fully immersed in the intricacies of Japanese culture.
I received this book from Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.