Continuing our book journey around the world, we today head to Japan and one of it’s southernmost cities, Nagasaki. This weeks book is possibly one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It is called a Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton.
The cover and title are rather unassuming and if I am honest, had it not been for my fascination with all things Japan, I would probably have skimmed over this book and bought something else but it just goes to show, you really cannot judge a book by it’s cover!
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautiful, tragic story that is written in such a way that even in the darkest moments, there is a glimmer of hope. The book could really have been quite the weepy novel however, Jackie Copleton wrote it in such a way that by the end you felt full of hope instead. This is quite a feat when dealing with the subject matter that this book was focused on, the A Bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th 1945, the day everything changed, not just for those living in Nagasaki but also the rest of the world. The ripples from this bombing, and that of the earlier bombing of Hiroshima, still radiate around the world today.
The title of the book comes from an actual dictionary explaining Japanese culture in English, and each chapter begins with a term taken from the book, tying the title into the story rather nicely. I found I learnt quite a bit about Japanese culture from the snippets at the start of each chapter, and Jackie had chosen well to include elements of culture that were reflected in the chapter that followed.
The story focuses around the main character, Amaterasu Takahashi, who loses two members of her family, her daughter and grandson in the Nagasaki bombing and how she has passed through life since feeling immense guilt and responsibility, as a series of events unfolding from her actions led to both characters being in the city at the moment the bomb hit. The description of that moment in the book is so powerfully written, you can almost feel the emotion and sense the excruciating pain both the victims and survivors were suffering. It is a tremendous feat to be able to capture such a tragic and defining moment as someone who was not actually present at the time. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Jackie to research this and to read the accounts of those who actually lived through the horror.
Amaterasu is saved from the impact of the bomb due to the cities topography, with the blast mainly contained to the city thanks to the land surrounding it. I think the moments just before the bomb struck are some of the most powerful in the book, as Jackie details the most mundane of tasks in such clarity that you really do feel the shock of the moment when the bomb is actually dropped. You are then torn into the distress of this mother and grandmother, looking down on a city destroyed, knowing her child and grandson are there, right in the heart of the chaos, and the heart wrenching desperation as she searches the ruins in the immediate aftermath.
The story then unravels some years later, when Amaterasu has left Nagasaki behind, unable to handle the grief and guilt she carried from that day and needing to get as far away as possible, to a land completely foreign to what she knows, America. Ironic that she chooses to go to America but I am guessing it is for her own punishment (her way of handling the guilt she feels) as much as it is an escape.
Out of the blue, with Amaterasu now a widow, a man turns up on her doorstep claiming to be her Grandson, extremely disfigured from the bomb and with so much time having passed, considerably aged since the day she would have last seen him. The story follows Amaterasu trying to figure out who this man is and whether by some miracle, he could actually be her Grandson.
I have completely fallen in love with this book and I have recommended it to so many people since. It is a fantastic piece of writing, beautifully put together and it invokes so much strong emotion in the readers. I seriously cannot recommend this book enough! And now I want to visit Japan and Nagasaki, to explore the peace park and all it stands for now and to leave behind my own origami crane as a message of peace and hope for the future.
Next week we will be leaving the shores of Japan behind and heading to Australia.