Jennifer Cody Epstein
I rate it: 7/10
Before I start the review, please allow me a moment to gush about how wonderful it feels to get a free hard cover book straight from the author, with a tastefully done cover to boot. That almost never happens. Hardbacks are so lovely I’m almost completely ready to love the story inside, no matter what it is or who tells it. Yay for hardbacks!
That’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked Jennifer Epstein’s The Gods of Heavenly Punishment if it hadn’t been hardcover. The story is engaging, the characters are interesting and real, if a bit exotic, and you never stop wanting to find out what comes next. Most of the story is based in Japan during the second world war. A young Japanese girl who is watching helplessly as her parents drift apart, loses everything and everyone in the Tokyo firebombings of 1945. An American pilot with a pregnant young wife is taken prisoner by the Japanese. A photographer returns to Tokyo after decades, and learns to find the courage to accept his own identity. These three characters have very little to do with each other, but their lives are intertwined by fate, and by war.
I do not know if Jennifer has portrayed the Japan of those times honestly, because unlike her, I’ve never lived in Japan or even read too much about it. But I admire the richness and the complexity that she puts into the backdrop of her novels, particularly when she writes about the chasm between the conventional and the modern way of life in Japan, about the gradual moral decay of the people,and about their amazing power of adjustment and resilience.
The ending was a bit too predictable, too symmetrical, but I could accept that. After the harrowing things the characters went through, perhaps they deserved a bit of symmetry in their loves.
The only Japanese novel I’ve read is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I’m also very fond of Memoirs of A Geisha, but I realize it is completely orientalised and romanticized. The Gods of Heveanly Punishment seemed to be able to balance realism and drama nicely.
The author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, was nice enough to answer a few questions I had about the book. Here’s my interview with her:
1. Hi Jennifer! Welcome to Rivers I Have Known, and thanks for my copy of your book. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment” is mostly based in wartime Japan, Your previous novel was based in China I believe. Why do you choose Oriental settings for your stories? Do you plan to continue writing mostly about Asia and Asians?
When I set out to become a writer, I didn’t have a specific sense of where I would be setting my stories geographically–though given that I’d spent seven years living in Asia and had travelled there pretty widely, I guess it was inevitably an option. The funny part for me was that since most of my living and academic experience was in Japan, I had no expectation that I’d end up writing about China first. The topic–the incredible life of Chinese prostitute-turned-post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang–just sort of grabbed me, and while I was really daunted by trying to write about a country in which I had relatively little life experience (though I did live in Hong Kong for two years) I was so fascinated by Pan’s story that I decided to try it anyway. Similarly, as someone who knew Japan only as a peace-loving ally of America, the stories I heard and history I read about its wartime existence–and in particular, the virulent enmity it felt towards America–really fascinated me. So when someone brought the Tokyo Firebombing to my attention, I realized that I had a great opportunity to explore that fascination.
As for future plans….I have a few stories in my head that will also be set in Asia, but I think for the next one I’m moving Westward! As of now I’m planning to set it in wartime Berlin.
2. The gap between the conservative and the traditional is an interesting theme you’ve written about in “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment”, reflected with clarity in the deteriorating relationship between Yoshi’s parents. Do you feel this social gap is unique to traditional societies like Japan, or have you seen similar gaps in western society as well?
I think that in any society you have a constant push-pull between the old ways and the new, because by definition societies are constantly changing, reinventing themselves. One of the things that fascinates me about Asian society, though, is that–particularly during this time period, from the late 1800’s through the end of the second world war–you not only had change in the way Japanese people thought about traditional Japanese society but an enormous–and at times almost violent–flood of Western technology, philosophy and culture pouring in, which made the struggle between old and new that much more extreme. It’s something the Japanese writers Tanizaki and Desai explore very richly in their work (I’m thinking in particular of The Makioka Sisters and The Setting Sun, two of my favorite Japanese novels). But I think you have similar–if less extreme–gaps in the West because of the ever-increasing flow of immigration. American today is nothing like the “traditional” America of Norman Rockwell days–it is perpetually being forced to redefine itself as more and more of its citizens claim their roots in the East and elsewhere.
3. Billy’s homosexuality is heavily foreshadowed in the story, with his depiction as a boy with barely any boyish interests, prone to tears, artistic… do you think you may have taken a shortcut here, when you show a slightly effeminate boy grow up into a gay man, or do you feel your depiction is quite close to the truth (I know Billy’s sexuality has nothing to do with the story, I’m just curious)
Wow–great and very thought-provoking question! It’s funny, but while I was writing Billy’s character as a boy I really wasn’t thinking much about his sexuality, though I knew that he’d grow up to be gay (a choice I made because I thought it would make the dynamic between him and Yoshi more interesting). Being a kind of geeky, artistic and over-sensitive child myself, I knew lots of boys who were also geeky, artistic and over-sensitive–though whether they proved to be gay or not in the end I don’t know. I also didn’t particularly see Billy as particularly effeminate–either as a boy or as a man. He just struck me as a quiet kid with major esteem issues–as would be the case with someone like Anton for a father; someone who would carry those issues with him through the war and after until finally “discovering” himself as an older adult.
4. One of my favorite books about Japan is Memoirs of a Geisha , even though I realize it is heavily orientalized and romantisized. Do you think Japan has been truthfully depicted so far in english literature? What are your favorite fictions in english based in Japan?
Another great question! I actually love Memoirs as well–after refusing to read it for months after it came out I finally capitulated, sat down on a couch with it, and basically didn’t get up again for two days. It was that compelling. As someone who had lived in Japan at that point, and somewhat to my own surprise, I actually didn’t see it as particularly orientalized–it seemed to me Arthur Golden had done his research and written it in a tone and style that isn’t out-of-place with much Japanese literature of that period (the movie may be another story). And if it was romanticized, I think that comes with the territory (it is, after all, about geisha, who trade in the art of romance!). That said, I think there is always a danger when writing about people and places “other” than ourselves of falling into trope and stereotype. I can’t think of any novels about Japan I’ve read that really jump out at me as falling into that category, but I do have several books set in Japan written by American writers that I love: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery, for instance, and Butterfly’s Child by Angela Davis-Carter. I also loved The Commoner by Jonathan Burnham Schwartz.
5. Who are your favorite authors? Please share your list of 10 favorite books with our readers.
It’s always so hard to narrow it down! But here is a list in no particular order whatsoever:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Jennifer has given me permission to give away one copy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment to one of my readers. So yes, you can drool over the hard bound cover too (as long as you don’t literally do that). Just drop a comment here telling me if you have read any novels based in Japan, and if yes, which is your favorite. I’ll pick a name through an online randomizer and that person gets a free copy of this lovely book. Giveaway closes on 25 Sept, 2013