I had a preview copy of The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende for a long time before I got around to reading it. I’d de-prioritised it on a number of occasions… thinking I’d struggle with it.
It starts off slowly and remains noiselessly paced but I got drawn into the unfolding plot and just had to keep reading until I knew everything.
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis and the world goes to war, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and between them a tender love blossoms. Following Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart when Ichimei and his family – like thousands of Japanese Americans – are declared enemies by the US government and relocated to internment camps.
Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love they are forever forced to hide from the world.
Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the older woman and her grandson, Seth, at Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, and learn about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
I initially started writing my own blurb for this book before deciding I was too lazy and would rely on the official version. Interestingly mine started off with Irina—her arrival at Lark House and her kind but aloof and secretive manner—before introducing Alma.
Both women are delightful, and though it’s Alma’s story, Irina (and Seth) are the catalysts for its telling.
Alma happily admits she’s never had to do anything for herself. She’s lived with maids and cooks for her entire life, yet there something pragmatic and fiercely independent about her.
Her story is told in fits and starts until she acquiesces and shares it all. It’s understandable that she’s drawn to Irina who’s also hiding a painful past. And Allende does a beautiful job of slowly and carefully unwrapping their secrets.
It’s a story of love and loss. And so much more. Allende takes us to the Japanese internment camps set up during WWII and I’m reminded of my shock at discovering such things existed (also here in Australia) for our ‘supposed’ enemies who’d made our countries their home.
Allende also delves into the human spirit and we’re reminded how resilient it can be.
I marked a number of pages which ‘hit home’—featuring beautiful prose and elegant turns of phrase.
In the face of such prolonged agony there was no room for any kind of pretense; they revealed what they truly were when they were alone with themselves, stripped naked. p306
I was also surprised by Allende’s sense of humour as she handles the topic of ageing deftly and with a wry amusement.
Lenny Beal was eighty years old but no one would have said he was more than sixty. He was the most desirable specimen seen at Lark House in decades….. He almost caused a riot among the ladies; he filled the empty space, as if someone had let a tiger loose in this world of female longing.
Overnight blue-rinse wigs appeared, together with strings of pearls and varnished nails—all of these things a novelty for these ladies who despised artifice and had a tendency toward Buddhism and ecology. pp108-109
I’m not sure why I thought Allende’s writing wouldn’t be accessible to a literary heathen like me, but I’m really glad I’ve dipped my toe in that beautifully drawn ocean and I’ll be back for more.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende was published in Australia by Simon & Schuster and available from 5 November 2015.
I received a copy of this book for review purposes.