|Eight Million Gods and Demons
Courtney Lewis - KLIATT
Representing the best of historical fiction, author Hiroko Sherwin tells the saga of the family of politician Taku Imura. Beginning with his entry into politics during Meiji-era Japan and ending with the story of his grandchildren during WW II, this sweeping work brings its characters alive through the minutiae of daily life as well as life's inherent drama. Taku is a man loved by his wife and son for his idealism and work for the common good. His delicate wife, Emi, loves him through his prison terms, her miscarriages, and his eventually setting up a second household with a former geisha. Ex-geisha Hana bears Taku four children and spends his money like water while quiet Emi composes music and rears her sole child, son Jun, in a simple household. When Emi finally passes away from the epilepsy that has plagued her for years, brilliant and sensitive Jun, shy from a stuttering problem, must go to live with his father's other family. He finds surprising allies in some of his new siblings whose support and kindness help him bear his stepmother's vicious tongue. As Jun grows and finds love in a rapidly changing Japan, the family's fortune crosses paths with the Emperor's political agenda of conquest. The life of Taku's family is irreparably changed as the war comes to fruition and yet this novel becomes one of hope and love in the end. Sherwin's writing is gripping and what seems like a quiet historical novel grows into an epic of love and war. The quiet tone and multiple characters make it suitable for older audiences. Highly recommended; all senior high and public libraries would do well to add this to their fiction collections. KLIATT Codes: SA?Recommended for senior high schoolstudents, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Penguin, Plume, 328p., Ages 15 to adult.
A family is destroyed as Japan becomes an imperial power bent on expansion and conquest. The tone is sentimental, the tale is rare in its detailing of a Japanese family's reactions to the growing aggression in the years between the two world wars. With the exception of one son-in-law, who heads up an arms factory, most of the characters are idealist, socialist, patriotic, yet antiwar. Taku, the patriarch, is an idealist working for Korea's independence. He marries teenager Emi, a musically talented beauty, but she is frail and has difficulty bearing children. Eventually, she does have one son, Jun, but her joy in him is tempered by revelations of Taku's betrayal. Though he's conscience-stricken about his infidelity, Taku has fallen in love with Hana, a stunning geisha whom he sets up in a separate household, where she gives birth to three daughters, Yumi, Tami, and Kana, and a son, Ken. Emi soon dies, and Taku marries Hana, but as the children grow up and begin to marry, Japan goes to war with China, then with Britain and the US. The family has to cope with these changes as Kana's husband, a soldier who fought in China, comes back severely traumatized-he and other soldiers having raped and killed innocent Chinese. Jun, now a doctor, with his wife Sayo, tries to save the victims of the frequent bomb attacks that cause deadly fires, and their only son, Shun, is drafted, though he has bad eyesight. Taku, meanwhile, is horrified at what Japan has become, and Hana, who loves beautiful things and sees no point in living, wills herself to die. More deaths follow, in battle or in the bombings that increase as the Japanese retreat. By the time peace comes, the family has few survivors. They haveto pick up the pieces. A compelling first novel, richly textured in its telling.
From Sarah Meador
Eight Million Gods and Demons starts out modestly, with a single woman in a single household. At first the narrative seems compulsively narrow, as wrapped up as Emi Imura in her concern over her husband’s infidelity and her own apparent infertility. But slowly, other stories are drawn in empty spaces of her narrative; her husband, Taku, appears, his mistress, Hana, Emi’s mother, with each new story introducing still others in an avalanche of complexity. As each person reflects the lives of those around them, their shared experience reflects their home nation of Japan, taking the family and the country through galvanic changes.
Hiroko Shawin has a graceful flair for portraying life in all its everyday boredom and intensity. While Japan struggles through its imperialistic age, the family fights with everyday concerns?sibling rivalry, infidelity, the limits of age. Characters are introduced with no fanfare or official presentation, appearing in the story with an assumed familiarity more usually found in personal journals. Death comes in the same unannounced manner, with a quiet inevitability that makes the loss even more shocking. Children grow with the breathtaking suddenness known to every parent, love blooms and dies in all its irrational ways. The landscape of Japan plays its own active role in the tale, a character as much as a setting. The outrage of human atrocities is highlighted by the seeming indifference of the land, then made insignificant by a burst of tectonic fury.
As the country charges into war, Shawin’s understated writing becomes painfully effective. Starting with an unexpected and catastrophic earthquake, the quiet struggles for domestic harmony and idealistic purity are lost in a pounding drumbeat of death. There is the death of ideals, as Taku sees his beloved country fall under the sway of militaristic tyrants. Characters that have been introduced as gentle children lose themselves in bloody quests for acceptance and purpose. And there is the simple unrelenting loss of life that comes with a total war. With the exception of one soldier lost in New Guinea, all the family’s losses happen in the Japanese islands, as fall to Allied bombs, illness, madness, or the privations of war.
Historical fiction is often hampered by a foreknowledge of events to come. Japan’s march to war, and its internal struggle through militarism and tyranny, could lose some of its fear with the knowledge of the peace to come. Shawin creates the intensity of a immediate crisis and the tension of unanswered fears through the deep involvement of her characters. All crises end; the readers know it, and throughout the novel, the characters find some hope in the assurance that peace must eventually come again. The fear comes not from the situation itself, but the unknown changes it must bring. Japan may survive the war; from the first rumble of the earthquake, it is clear that the Imuras may not. The expansive family cast that Shawin has spent most of the novel creating wither away with heart-catching speed. As the war rages, Eight Million Gods and Demons becomes a desperate race, as if reaching the end of the book faster might stop the horrors still to come.
The end does come in its own time, and in the wasteland of postwar Japan Shawin manages to create a slight breath of hope. Eight Million Gods and Demons is a heartbreaking book, full of tragedy and betrayal on levels intimate and grand. But Hiroko Shawin delivers the most power in her brief glimpses of hope and forgiveness, delicate moments that will fall apart if held tightly. They support the burdens of pain throughout the story, and may prove enough to defend a heart against Eight Million Gods and Demons.
Copyright 2008 R M. Fossey. All Rights Reserved.