I don’t remember if ever reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I think my high school English class got to vote on whether we read it or Macbeth and, being the lazy honors level seniors that we were, we picked Shakespeare because it was infinitely shorter and, you know, a play. I do have a general idea of what happens in Bronte’s book, though, so when I saw a book Goodreads described as “A remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan,” I couldn’t help but enter the First Reads giveaway for it. And I won.
The books start off sort of strangely, with author Minae Mizumura explaining how she came to write her novel. More complicated still is the explanation Mizumura gives of the classic Japanese “I novel” and “true novel” that she seeks to emulate. Pardon me if I don’t get it exactly, but I’m fairly certain the gist of it is that the author play some role in the novel, for the “I novel,” and that the novel be based on true events, for the “true novel.”
So Mizumura tells the story of her childhood as a Japanese girl in the United States. Her father takes a man, a private chauffeur, named Taro Azuma under his wing and she gets to see Azuma rise up to be an incredibly rich man in his own right. Mizumura had a crush on the mysterious, stoic Azuma and thoughts of him haunted her years after they last met. But it was only when she taught a class at Stanford and encountered a Japanese student that she found something to write a “true novel” about.
At this point in the story, about a third of the way through the first book of the two book set, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to move from non-fiction to an at least semi-fictional novel. I liked Mizumura and I felt like the story was over. I almost gave up on the book.
I am so glad I didn’t give up on the book.
The Japanese student Mizumura accidentally encounters tells her the story of Taro Azuma and she then weaves it into a so-called true novel. That being said, I have no idea what the truth behind Taro Azuma is, and she does not change his name, but I love the story she tells for him.
The story is narrated by Fumiko, a housemaid for one of the Saegusa sisters in the decades following World War II. Taro is the orphaned, half-Japanese, half-Chinese nephew of the nephew of the rickshaw man who lives on the property where Fumiko works. In time, he befriends Yoko, the small and sickly daughter of the family. In time, he falls hopelessly in love with her.
But even though it is the 1950s and 1960s and so on, old prejudices died hard in Japan. The Saegusa sisters would never allow a child of theirs to really and truly “be” with someone so inconsequential as Taro Azuma. Over the years, Fumiko watches as Yoko and Taro feel everything so passionately that she knows it will destroy them in the end. That’s where the story compares with Bronte, I suppose.
Even more than the love story that was, can never be, is, and can’t possibly last between Taro Azuma and Yoko Utagawa, A True Novel is the story of Japan in the post-war decades. It’s fascinating, to put it simply. Long a closed society in the extreme, the old guard in Japan (i.e. the Saegusa sisters and their generation) are holding tight to yesterday. Their children are struggling to balance the old with the new. And the third generation is happily branching out around the world. No one really could survive unscathed and the characters in Mizumura’s story are no exception.
Like Bronte, there is no cut and dry happy ending to this story. It ends, or rather some of it ends. And people live on.
Just as in life, the story keeps going through the moments of happiness and heartache.
Read this book. Please.