"An absolutely absorbing Japanese story, this, riven with tenderness, brutality, love and pain."
An absolutely absorbing Japanese story, this, riven with tenderness, brutality, love and pain. A tour de force for writer Jackie Copleton, who taught English in Japan and actually lived in Nagasaki, where her novel is set.
Nagasaki. The second city to be evaporated in an instant by the atomic bomb, a devastating sucker-punch after the destruction of Hiroshima three days earlier.
This cataclysmic event is at the heart of Copleton’s tale, posing the timeless question that all survivors of catastrophe ask themselves: ‘Why me?’
Amaterasu Takahashi survived the blast. Not so her daughter, Yuko, and her son Hideo. Fate and circumstance means that Yuko was at the exact epicentre of the explosion, the so-called ground zero of Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral. The bodies of Yuko and her little boy are never found; they are unlikely to exist other than shadows on the ground.
So imagine Amaterasu’s disbelief when, years later, a badly-scarred man appears at her door in her new home town of Philadelphia, where she fled after the war to build a new life. The stranger says he is no stranger at all.
He is Hideo, her grandson. What’s more, he can prove it.
I loved this seemingly impossible conundrum and the way a deeply suspicious Amaterasu tries to resolve it. It will take her on a journey deep into her own past and expose long-buried secrets and guilt. It’s a profoundly painful process, but truth, as they say, will out. And it is our privilege to watch it happen.
"I particularly liked the vignettes Copleton paints of the moments just before the atomic bomb detonates; the last seconds of life for people who have no idea what is about to befall them."
The writing in this book is extraordinarily vivid. I particularly liked the vignettes Copleton paints of the moments just before the atomic bomb detonates; the last seconds of life for people who have no idea what is about to befall them.
Children torturing insects. Prostitutes flashing their red under-kimonos. Everyday images made fantastically potent by our knowledge that these lives are about to be not so much interrupted, as evaporated.
The book takes its title from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture, extracts from which begin each chapter. It’s a clever way to explain aspects of Japanese culture to us, so we understand what follows.
Poor Amaterasu. As the story unfolds, we realise she has been suffering from ‘survivor’s guilt’ almost from the moment of the nuclear explosion on August 9th, 1945. Gradually we unpick the trail that led her daughter to the exact spot where the bomb would detonate. Increasingly, Amaterasu asks herself if she could have done things differently. If she had, would her daughter and grandson be alive today?
Yet now it appears that one of them actually is. How on earth could Hideo have survived? Are his scars proof he is telling the truth? And he has other evidence that he is who he says he is. A collection of sealed, private letters and diaries. What do they reveal? Can Amaterasu get to the truth, and find some kind of peace if she does?
Beautiful, intriguing, and a richly rewarding read.
Here are a selection of the reviews for A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
"This impressively layered first novel never strains credulity as it explores grief and guilt amid revelations of long-buried familial secrets, destructive love affairs and more."
The New York Times
"Full of delicate imagery drawing on Japanese nature and culture, this is a rich, romantic story, brimming with restrained emotion – with a twist that will take your breath away. Superb"
"The graceful style and clarity of her writing make this an addictive read."
Scottish Daily Mail