The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s novels often take place during a time of war and its aftermath when characters are forced to tap unknown reservoirs of strength and find creative, unorthodox ways of forming families to protect the vulnerable.  

Her novels are invariably well plotted and often include a thread of magical realism. And they tend to be beautifully written—though in The Japanese Lover, likely the translation does not do justice to the original manuscript.

The time of war in this novel is World War II, with the concentration camps in Germany and the Japanese internment camps in America. And the long tail on the war likely made places like Moldova (where Irina’s story begins) a place to leave. 

Early in the war, young Alma, with her Jewish parentage, is sent from Poland to live with the wealthy Belasco family in San Francisco. In her loneliness, she is befriended and comforted by her older cousin, Nathaniel Belasco. And she is utterly captivated by young Ichimei Fukuda, the Japanese gardener’s son, whose family is one of many sent to an internment camp.  

As the years pass after the war, Ichimei’s life takes its own path, and Alma grows up and marries her cousin Nathaniel and has a son with him. And the son grows up and has a son, Seth, who grows up to be one of the main chroniclers of his grandmother’s life—including the undying love story between her and gentle Ichimei. 

In the time present of the story, Alma is elderly and Seth is trying to complete a history of the wealthy and well-known Belasco family before his grandmother dies. Of great puzzlement to Seth is why, “early in 2010 his grandmother’s personality underwent a complete change in the space of two hours. Although she had been a successful artist and someone who always fulfilled her obligations, she suddenly cut herself off from the world, family, and friends, shutting herself away in an old people’s home that was beneath her and deciding, in her daughter-on-law Doris’s opinion, to dress like a Tibetan refugee.” 

The overall movement of the novel is to discover why. Why does she do his sudden, outrageous, and inexplicable thing? What happened to cause such a dramatic turn? 

Seth and Irina (a young woman who works at the old people’s home and hides a huge secret of her own) come together to love and support Alma, and to find out why she made such a dramatic change.  

To tell the story, the narration begins with a few steps forward in the characters’ lives, reaches back in time to reveal something important, takes a few more steps forward, reaches back in time to reveal something else important. Over and over again—until the reader finally and satisfyingly understands why Alma’s whole life changed in the space of two hours.   

Allende, through Alma, as seen by Irina—who is a kind of acolyte in the complicated ritual of dying—presents an evocative, compelling picture of aging unto death. Yes, aging is troublesome. It involves unrelenting loss. And it is inevitable. But Alma moves toward it with passion, discipline, imagination, and a touch of whimsey. Her soothing ritual of long weekends away with Ichimei help her linger on the bridge between life and death with her true love. 

The Japanese Lover feels singular in the way it depicts growing old and dying as a heady distillation of life. — Sharelle Moranville

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The characters and events in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are indeed unlikely: Harold makes a spontaneous decision to walk the length of England in yachting shoes to keep his old friend Queenie alive. He gradually abandons structure and convention as the journey progresses—finally paying no attention to night or day or weather or food or where he sleeps. He is utterly shocked at the grotesque deathbed disfigurement that has come from Queenie’s waiting for him. None of these things seem quite realistic or likely, yet the overall story comes to feels universally true and important.

At the beginning, we meet Harold and Maureen: “Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbor’s stockade fencing.” Maureen is cleaning, which she does a lot. She likes her toast cold and crisp. And she is dismissive of everything Harold says and does.

Immediately, Queenie’s letter arrives with the news that she is dying, and before long Harold is off on his unlikely pilgrimage to hand carry his inchoate written response to her news, believing that the long journey will delay her death.

At first, Harold and Maureen feel pathetic in their dysfunction—like characters only the author could love. But as they open up to the reader (but not to each other), they begin to feel like survivors who may deserve our understanding, instead of victims who need our pity. As the revelations land, we learn of parental abandonment and indifference. Of a brilliant, but troubled, addicted son who hangs himself.

A universal story begins to unfold of childhood tenderness and trauma, of young adulthood with its peaks and perils. If we’re lucky, true love strikes and makes us dance crazy. But even then, our past nags at our present. Shortcomings show themselves. Mistakes are made, hearts are broken, memories are wrenched into false truths. We blame, we feel guilty. We ache. We mourn. We deny.

Harold’s pilgrimage on a narrative level is about keeping Queenie in this world as long as possible, but his real pilgrimage is to fall in love with Maureen again, and have her fall in love with him again. And for them to share good, true memories of their son who, like everyone, ultimately made his own choices.

At the end, when Harold and Maureen are leaving the nuns after Queenie’s funeral, they find themselves laughing about something one of them said at their first meeting. What was said isn’t shared with the reader. It’s just their memory, which enhances the new sense of intimacy between them. “They caught hands again, and walked toward the water’s edge, two small figures against the black waves. Only half way there, one of them must have remembered again and it passed like a fresh current of joy between them. They stood at the water’s edge, not letting go, and rocked with laughter.”

— Sharelle Moranville

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is a delightful and discussable novel. The story of the Land family—
Jeremiah, Davy, Reuben, and Swede—is set in the early 60s in rural Minnesota and the North Dakota badlands.  

The narrator is Reuben as an adult, reflecting back on a childhood marred by severe and unpredictable asthma. Much of the tension of young Reuben’s story is his nervous, sometimes resentful, monitoring of his dad’s miracles—always hoping for the big one: that his dad will cure him. Reuben knows his dad can perform miracles because he has witnessed them—curing an undeserving school superintendent of a skin condition, healing a flaw in Swede’s saddle, rendering the Land’s Airstream rig invisible to the Law. And ultimately, Jeremiah does cure his son’s asthma, by miraculously gifting Rueben with his own lungs—the occasion for this miracle, by the way, compliments of the evil, murderous Jape Waltzer. 

While young Reuben wrestles with his asthma, his little sister Swede—sidekick and foil—is pounding out a kind of parallel saga of Sunny Sundown and the wicked Valdez on a manual typewriter, often while riding a saddle on a sawhorse in an Airstream trailer heading West in search of fugitive Davy. Sunny Sundown’s saga is told in charmingly awful heroic verse. And significantly, Swede can’t kill Valdez—though if ever a fictional villain deserved death it is he. 

The novel explores very serious and weighty matters: life and death, good and evil, crime and punishment—all the while making us laugh at the most unlikely moments. For example, the gruesome hunting scene near the beginning of the story, rendered hysterical by Swede’s unwise enthusiasm to retrieve the downed goose. 

We see the transformative power of love in Roxanna who, when we meet her, is graceless and plain. But when she and Jeremiah marry, she is graceful and beautiful. And as she is transformed by them, so are they transformed by her: Jeremiah to health and the children from motherless to abundantly mothered. 

Enger’s characters, which are both types and utterly singular, push the boundaries of realism. But because they are so original and engaging, and because the pacing of the story is quick and the stakes are high, the reader cheerfully goes along for the ride. The oversize characters are easy to love, easy to despise, and easy to equivocate about. Jeremiah is Good. Almost like Christ. Jape Waltzer is Evil. Almost like Satan. And Davy, Reuben’s outlaw brother, is Morally Ambiguous. Almost like us. 

Enger’s poses a kind of Yin and Yang dualism. We can’t have life without death, or good without evil, or joy without sadness, or doubt without miracles. Perhaps the reason Swede can’t kill Valdez is because Sunny Sundown can’t live without him. Jape Waltzer needs to murder Jeremiah so Reuben can receive the miracle. And we can’t bear the grimness of it all without being able to laugh.

Sharelle Moranville