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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review of A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING by Jackie Copleton

4 Stars
Forty years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Amaterasu Takahashi, now living in the U.S., is visited by a badly scarred man who claims to be her grandson Hideo.  Amaterasu is skeptical having been convinced that her grandson and his mother, her daughter Yuko, died on August 9, 1945.  Yuko’s diaries, which she finally reads, and letters from Hideo’s adoptive parents force her to revisit her past:  her life before, during and after the war and her relationship with her daughter.  A lot of family secrets are revealed.

Each chapter begins with a thematically relevant Japanese word; each adds to the cultural context of the novel.  The reader learns the cultural influences which affect the behaviour of the characters.  For example, one of the first words is haji with the explanation that “the Japanese live in a typical shame culture” and “the Japanese have internal behavioural standards and a deep sense of conscience regarding personal conduct.”  Other words are seken-tei (decency) and yasegaman (endurance) and kenkyo (humility), all concepts of virtue to which Amaterasu adheres.

Amaterasu is a very complex character.  She has a great deal of regret and intense guilt.  She believes that she is responsible for her daughter’s death because she insisted on meeting Yuko at what became the epicentre of the bombing:  “my daughter might be here today if it had not been for me.  I tell myself I acted out of love and a mother’s selflessness but how important is the motivation when you consider the consequence?”  She admits that she has tried to forget the past so she can have “a bearable life” and “to ease the guilt just enough to function.”  She doubts that the man on her doorstep is Hideo:  “my grandson was too pure for any world that would keep . . . me alive but claim my daughter.  Only scavengers and liars and cheats survived.  The best of us died young back then.”

The book is an emotional roller-coaster ride.  There are times when the reader will be so angry with Amaterasu but then later will cry for her.  The same is the case for Sato, a family friend with whom Yuko has a relationship.  Sato is a villain and yet he has redeeming qualities.  In reality, humans are complicated with both positive and negative traits, and the characters in the novel are very realistic. 

There are a number of themes.  Obviously, the book examines why people make certain decisions and how they live with the repercussions of those decisions.  Amaterasu must try to find some peace when there may be no definitive answers to her questions:  What was Yuko going to tell her on the day of the bombing?  Is the man who claims to be her grandson related to her?  In her treatment of her daughter, was she motivated by love for her or by “hurt fossilised to anger, of rejection turned to hate”?

When I reached the end of the book, I promised myself that I would re-read it.  There is undoubtedly much I missed in my first reading.  I found this title on the longlist of the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I certainly understand why it appears there.