Pub. Date: December 1, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Penguin!)
Summary:When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?
Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII
When the publicist first contacted me about this book I told her it sounded like a checklist of everything I love in a novel: family drama, secrets, WWII. I couldn’t have been more delighted (and eager) to dive right into this one and – spoiler alert! – I’m excited to say A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding didn’t disappoint!
One morning Amaterasu Takahashi opens her door to a man insisting he’s her grandson. Her grandson who, for the past forty years, she had believed perished in the bombing of Nagasaki. She had learned to live with her grief (her daughter had also been killed that horrible day,) eventually moving to America with her husband and carrying on the best they could. Before her, however, stands a badly scarred man the same age Hideo would have been. Naturally she refuses to believe him until he hands her a sealed envelope that’s said to explain everything.
Opening the envelope reveals letters, private letters from a past she’s fought hard to forget. Reading each one is like revisiting painful memories, but the further she digs, the more she wonders: could her grandson really have survived?
A word of caution: if you’re looking for a story about a woman’s hunt for her long lost grandson, A Diction of Mutual Understanding isn’t for you. Sure, that’s the final goal, the end game, for Ama. However, this book kept reminding me of one of my Top Reads of 2014: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. Not because they both deal with Asian families, but because of how character-driven these stories are. From the very first page, Everything lets the reader know a girl is dead. Instead of turning into a gritty cop novel, it focuses on the tiny minutiae of family life and sibling dynamic (though it is eventually revealed what happened to Lydia, don’t worry!) Mutual Understanding had that same feel for me: here we have this horrible tragedy and a grandson who potentially survived. In order to discover his identity (and confirm or deny his relation to Ama) we instead must know about the events that laid the groundwork for Hideo’s life. The key figures in his mother’s life, how she came to meet her husband, circumstances of her own childhood. As someone who lives for character-driven novels, I absolutely loved this!
At the beginning of each chapter is a dictionary listing for a Japanese word or feeling: kodokara, en, Danson-johi, sasshi, and it’s these definitions that provide insight as to what the chapter would be about. Shame culture, suicide, even pearl divers played pivotal roles and helped to not only shed light on Ama and her family, but also nudged along the story.
It’s interesting that, for a novel so deeply tied to its characters, I have yet to discuss them! Ama and her husband Kenzo; Yuko, Shige, and their young son Hideo; the mysterious man claiming to be Hideo; silver-tongued Sato. Sato especially played a massive role, charming his way into hearts (and beds) and ruined lives with a smile. Throughout the novel there are snippets from Yuko’s diary, from girlish fantasies of first love through adulthood and fears for her soldier husband. Despite being the main character, Ama is a huge enigma and it isn’t until the end that her own backstory is revealed and my oh my it was a doozy.
Don’t let its slim size fool you: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding packs a punch. …more like punch after punch with a few stabs to the heart thrown in for good measure. For someone who loves WWII fiction so much, I’m shocked to realize I haven’t read any stories told from a Japanese perspective and reading the accounts (albeit fictionalized, though I’m positive they were based on actual memories, diaries, etc.) was extremely eye-opening and sobering. With a quick pace, addictive story, and short chapters, I breezed right through this one and highly recommend it!
Penguin wants YOU to discover this fantastic novel and they’re awesomely allowing me to do a giveaway! All you need to do is fill out this form! US ONLY PLEASE! I’ll announce the winner Sunday, December 6. Good luck!!