by Aki Shimazaki
translated by Fred A. Reed
Published by Talonbooks
127 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
In her debut novel, Aki Shimazaki uses simple language to tell a complex tale of political machinations, infidelity and murder. Set mainly in World War II-era Japan just before and during the atomic bombings by the United States that almost flatlined a country, Tsubaki is told in first person in the voice of two people: an adult daughter whose mother has just died and the mother herself, whose own story is told in a letter to that daughter. As halting as that sounds, Shimazaki pulls it off very well. The story never lags and the tension is never less than taut though, in truth, at 127 paperback pages, there's not much room for bogging.
As the story opens the mother, Yukiko, has recently died. Her daughter Namiko is at her mother's lawyer's office, settling Yukiko's affairs. As expected, everything is in order and fairly straightforward as Namiko was an only child. Namiko is surprised, however, when the lawyer hands her "two envelopes, each one bearing a name written in her hand." The first is addressed to Namiko herself and seems to contain a book. The second name is unfamiliar to Namiko and in addition contains a message for the daughter, "When you find my brother, give him this envelope in person. If not, make sure to burn it." The mystery comes because Namiko had always believed her mother to be an only child, like herself. There has been no hint of a long lost sibling and, anyway, the name on the envelope is different than her mother's maiden name.
Namiko had thought she knew everything there was to know about her mother's family, though she knew Yukiko had been reluctant to talk about the War:
When the subject of the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki arose, mother would refuse to talk. She had long forbidden me to tell anyone she was a bomb survivor. Since childhood I had wanted to learn her story. But I did not dare pursue the matter. I believed she had been hurt far more than I could know by the loss of my grandfather, who had died in the cataclysm.
Just prior to her death, Yukiko had inexplicably begun to discuss the long-forbidden topic with her grandson, Namiko's son. Through the device of these conversations -- with Namiko in the next room listening and overhearing -- Yukiko expounds her opinions regarding the U.S. bombing of Japan.
My son asked:
Several pages of this conversation follow and prove, along with a later, similar discourse on the atomic bombings, to be the only flawed portion of Tsubaki. While the opinions that Yukiko expresses are no doubt based in truth or at least educated musings, given to us under the thinly-veiled device of an overheard conversation, they come across like proselytizing. In another context, this would be interesting stuff. Used in this way, however, it's difficult not to see the puppeteer, the author, putting her characters through the motions of voicing opinions she wants to see expressed. Of course, authors do this all the time and the desire to do it here isn't the problem. Within the context of a plot heavy with twists and turns within a single family, the sudden broader view laced liberally with political machinations and implications is jolting, to say the least.
The balance of Tsubaki fairly sings, however. Shimazaki's prose is fluid and tight. The sentences are short though never staccato, the prose is beautiful, sparse and almost every word does its part in moving the story forward:
Two bridges led to the grove. Our house was located halfway between them. We each crossed in our own way. I took the right-hand bridge, he the left-hand one. We never agreed beforehand to meet. Sometimes I would be alone; sometimes he. As time went by, one began to feel the absence of the other.
Nothing is wasted and everything is exposed. In this regard, Tsubaki reminds one of a prose-length haiku, the Japanese verse form that permits the poet only three lines of text that must consist of a line of five syllables, a line of seven syllables and a final line of another five syllables. To write a successful haiku -- to tell a story or impart something of meaning in so confined a space -- demands that the poet be not only exceedingly articulate and possessed of a superior vocabulary, he or she must also be able to use language both economically and with power. In Tsubaki Shimazaki demonstrates her prowess in all of these areas. | July 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.