SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: THE JAPANESE LOVER BY ISABEL ALLENDE

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).

The Japanese Lover

The first time I picked this book up I wasn’t in the mood for it – probably needed something light. I am so glad I listened to a good friend’s advice: “You must read it. It’s beautiful.” She was right. Second time around I was in the headspace to appreciate Allende’s writing, which really is exquisite. Here’s the blurb:

In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis and the world goes to war, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her overseas to live with an aunt and uncle in their opulent San Francisco mansion. There she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and between them a tender love blossoms, but following Pearl Harbor the two are cruelly pulled apart. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to reconcile her own troubled past, meets the older woman and her grandson, Seth, at Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, and learn about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

Beautifully crafted and absorbing, The Japanese Lover is yet another example of Allende’s gift for storytelling. The tale of forbidden love switches from past to present, drawing out Alma’s memories as ageing takes hold and life ebbs away. Alma has kept the secret of her Japanese lover close to her heart for years; her affair with Ichimei came at a time when prejudice almost certainly would have destroyed their love. While time may well have confirmed this, Alma bears the burden of guilt for years, remonstrating herself for being “cowardly, capricious, and selfish”.

Allende’s often poetic turns of phrase catch at my writer’s heart: “They embraced desolately, the orphans of love” and “Alma gave herself to the unconscious joy of love” are two examples that stand out for me, but there are many more. The writing is descriptive, evocative, emotive and bursting with sub-texts that give the story its many layers. Late in the novel, Allende uses the word mirage which aptly reflects the masks most of the characters present to others. The plot is well realised, although I sensed early on what the outcome would be in relation to Nathaniel, Alma’s cousin; the historical aspects were insightful and thought-provoking.

Reading this book was like unwrapping a gift, layer after layer of decorative paper to the finest tissue, to find the story’s heart inside. I’d recommend this for fans of Allende and those who like love stories that emerge with subtlety and quiet power.

Available from good bookstores (RRP $32.99AUD). My ARC was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

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