After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara (Book Review)
Dundurn Press, Toronto, 324 pages, $21.99 paperback / $9.99 ebook here
Part family history, part mystery, After the Bloom is more than the story of a daughter’s attempt to look for her missing mother. The publisher’s back cover note calls it “epic”. That is not an exaggeration.
The story begins in 1984. Rita has just moved home and is coping with her recent separation from her husband when she was informed that her mother had gone missing from her home in Toronto. Rita’s search for her mother leads her to unravel Lily’s dark past in an internment camp for Japanese in California during the Second World War.
The narrative flashes back to 1943. Young Lily and her family are rounded up with other Japanese in an internment camp in the desert of California. The desert is hot and dry, and the pace of the story is reminiscent of the slow and long day the inhabitants would feel out there. Lily’s entrance was dramatic, and Kaz’s appearance brought on the tension. A double narrative line then develops between Rita’s search and Lily’s experience in the camp.
Lily falls in love with Kaz, and gets entangled in camp politics and the extreme tension between the rioters and camp supporters.
Shimotakahara writes with refined sensitivity about the fragility of human nature, and how such vulnerability can transform into strength in the name of love. Her characters are flawed with human weaknesses. They come across as real: they feel, they think and they act. They draw the readers into their worlds, sharing their anguish and pains.
Both the downtown Toronto and the desert camp landscape are depicted vividly, filtered by Shimotakahara’s keen observation, vivid imagination and strong narrative. The fictional name of Matanzas camp bears close resemblance to the actual Manzanar camp, where a riot took place, as in the novel. Credit must be given to her artful blend of research material and personal experience.
This is a story about human survival and redemption. History has its verdict on Japan’s role in the Second World War. Notwithstanding, the treatment given to the innocent Japanese born and living in North America at the time is also an ignominious page of history not to be denied. Imagine being given the choice of internment camp or repatriation to Japan, a country unknown to them, the language of which they did not speak.
A fourth-generation immigrant Japanese, Shimotakahara seems to be exploring the Japanese psyche, if this can so called, for herself. I share her journey through her lyrical prose about the social poise expected of Japanese women, the stringent rules of ikebana and the magic of Japanese folklore. Yet beneath the veneer of stoicism, her characters are frustrated, if not angry, and they need an outlet.
The author is not making a political treatise, but a plea for respect for humanity as her characters seek reconciliation and resolution with their past. When I finished the book, I was convinced that in the bigger world, it’s also time to move on to a more hopeful future after we have acknowledged the occurrence of past events.
I strongly recommend this book to readers with an interest in historical fiction, or a curiosity into the complexity of human nature and relationships. Any reader with an appreciation for literary prose will not be disappointed.
(A version of this review has appeared in the issue of Ottawa Review of Books https://www.ottawareviewofbooks.com/single-post/2017/09/04/After-The-Bloom-by-Leslie-Shimotakaharaand in the blog Quick Brown Fox http://quick-brown-fox-canada.blogspot.com/2017/10/after-bloom-by-leslie-shimotakahara.html)