The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

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The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Florence Holmes
Reviewed by Florence Holmes
Summary: A disquieting tale of the enduring connection we have to our geographical and cultural roots, and the surprisingly different forms of close relationships.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 322 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Scribner
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1471152191

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The Japanese Lover is an unassuming novel. The beginning leads the reader to anticipate an enjoyable light read, a good holiday book perhaps – a very well plotted story with an interesting cast of characters and settings. Irena, a Moldovan girl with elfin looks and a passion for fantasy novels, starts working in bohemian care home, Lark House in San Francisco. She meets the stately and somewhat aloof Alma Belasco, whose story starts to unravel, beginning with her being brought over from Poland (just as Jews became increasingly vulnerable to the Nazis) to her wealthy aunt and uncle in Cliff House, San Francisco, as a little girl. Allende almost makes us think that this opening tone, entertaining but fairly shallow, will continue for the rest of the novel.

However, The Japanese Lover drills deeper than a sentimental family saga. The Belascos have a Japanese gardener and when he and his family are taken to a concentration camp in the desert, the point of view shifts to them. The plight of Japanese 'aliens', being far less talked and written about than sufferers in Nazi concentration camps, takes the reader by surprise. This is especially the case as it contrasts starkly with the opening of the novel, with Alma's experience of affluence and leisure, both as a child and an elderly woman. We experience with the Fukudas the complete lack of autonomy, the terrible food, the queuing for every daily task and, worst off all, the boredom of every day which lasts for years.

Japanese Americans' experience of the Second World War isn't the only uncomfortable truth which Allende tackles. She has a knack for bringing issues (for want of a better word) to the reader's attention which are close enough to us to make us feel at best confronted and at worst, implicated. Lark House becomes increasingly relevant to the other strands of the novel; Allende positions it as a waiting room, a liminal place where dying is both an inevitability – residents move up the floors as they become increasingly disabled – and a choice, as there is an open attitude towards euthanasia.

As well as questioning attitudes towards end of life from abortion to old age, Allende writes a number of unconventional intimate relationships and marriages. These are passionate, messy and halting, refreshingly realistic in their vulnerability to outside events and attitudes. Most poignant, perhaps, is Alma's relationship with her art studio assistant Kirsten, who has Downs Syndrome. The imperious old lady loves to be stroked and plied with wet kisses from her, and Kirsten's role in the studio gives her life a shape and purpose it might well not otherwise have. Allende is evidently a keen observer of human psychology and is adept at demonstrating what her characters get from their various partnerships, romantic and platonic. There are moments when the saccharine threatens but generally, Irena and Alma's punchy, straight talking personalities prevent this from dominating.

The Japanese Lover begins as a novel to be enjoyed and ends as a novel which the reader wants to share with another, to discuss the difficult decisions its characters make. It exceeds initial expectations; a good thing for any fiction.

Further reading suggestions: Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane, The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

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