The Unhappiness of the Imura Family
I am so glad not to have been born into the Imura family. They are the bad Forest Gump family of Japan, with each generation directly touching every tragedy that the country has experienced, from the death of Fukuzawa Yukichi in 1901 to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 on down to Nanking massacre in 1938 and the atomic bomb in 1945. If something bad happened in Japanese history, you can bet a member of the Imura family was there to be damaged, either physically or psychologically. This is some seriously bad karma.
“Eight Million Gods and Demons” starts off well enough. The story of a frail but kind-hearted woman, Emi and her ugly but idealistic husband Taku, is interrupted by the strutting geisha peacock Hana, who uses her charms to steal Taku. While Taku rises in money and political power, his ego is stroked by the practiced Hana, and soon he is splitting time between two families, knowingly betraying the woman he loves for the woman who has entangled him with all the abilities of her profession. This section of the book was excellent, and I found the simple and realistic story of the love triangle to be interesting and moving.
However, the book then abruptly changes gears about 1/3 of the way in. The main characters change, the focus of the story changes, and it is suddenly the tale of a shy stuttering adolescent desperately in love with his half-sister, throwing himself into the study of bacteria and science in order to suppress his forbidden desires. You see, in order for author Hiroko Sherwin to connect the dots between all of these great Japanese tragedies, she needs to change characters every so often. It is an easy enough prospect. You need a soldier to go and fight in China, so you marry a daughter off to a brave young man and then send him off to be ravaged by war. Characters magically appear exactly when the situation calls for them, and then shuffle off their mortal coil when they are no longer necessary to the plot.
Maybe everyone will find a section they like, but I found it hard to enjoy the book as a whole. I was disappointed when the Emi/Taku/Hana chapter came to a close, and felt a bit betrayed by the author when she suddenly switched the cast around. Why did you make me become involved in these characters, if they were not the point of the book? If they were just staging characters whose sole purpose was to give birth to their children, why devote 1/3 of the book to them? None of the following characters lived and breathed for me, and they all seemed like cardboard cutouts, created to suit the impending disaster and for little other reason. A multi-generational story can be done well, and I have read books where it was handled beautifully, but it is not done so here.
The actual writing of the books is good, although it is clear that the author is not writing in her native language. She becomes clumsy around Japanese terms that lack direct translations, and instead of explaining them or working around them in the language, she opts for strange terms that make little sense, like calling the hat a woman wears in traditional Japanese wedding a “horn hide”, and some similar instances. It was bold of her to write a book in English, but it seems like a native speaking editor should have corrected some of these terms.