This is an extraordinary novel for several reasons. First, as a physical object. The publisher, the Other Press, has produced a work that is a pleasure to hold and read—paperback two volumes in a boxed set on fine paper with an attractive typeface and a number of full-page black-and-white photographs of scenes in and around the place in Japan where the novel is set. It includes a map and a family trees of the two key families so that Western readers can keep the name and relationship straight.
Second, the translation from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter is lively and engaging. It does not read like a translation. (Occasionally in other books, it is possible to recognize where the translator nodded.) The author, Minae Mizumura, was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island when she was twelve. She studied French Literature
at Yale College and after finishing her M.Phil. program,
returned to Japan to devote herself to writing. She's taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the
University of Michigan, and Stanford, and was a resident novelist in the
International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Finally, the novel itself is wonderful. A True Novel, as Mizumura acknowledges in the first section of the book, is a retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan, featuring a half-Chinese, half-Japanese Heathcliff, Taro Asama. We have a Japanese Catherine, Yoko Utagawa, and a "Nelly" Dean: Fumiko, a maid who tells most of the story. But while there are superficial resemblances to Bronte, which added to my pleasure in the book, A True Novel is its own story, told in its own time (roughly 1945 - 2005) with its own characters and its own setting.
The book begins as the narrator, who shares all of Mizumura's history, tells us about the rise of a young Japanese man, Taro Asama, she knew in New York as a child. Taro shows up in New York as an immigrant in the late 1950s and finds work as a chauffeur. He learns English, progresses from driver to camera repairman to medical equipment salesman to, eventually, venture capitalist.
167 pages into the first volume, a young Japanese man tells the novelist about his experiences on vacation in Karuizawa, town that's been a resort area for Westerners and wealthy Japanese since the 19th Century. While the young man was in Karuizawa, he heard the story of a wealthy family from a middle-aged woman, Fumiko, who had been the family's maid and seen Taro Asama and Yoko Utagawa play together and grow up together as children. On page 307 of Volume I, Fumico begins to tell her story, the entire history of the children, their parents, siblings, and interactions.
Because of the novel's sweep, we see characters grow up, grow old, and (some of them) die. And we see it against the background of Japan's changes since The Great Pacific War. Rustic Karuizawa is turned into supermarkets, convenience stores, and summer homes for corporate executives. And through it all is the impossible but irresistible love of Taro for Yoko.
The two volumes are 854 pages. Once I was caught up, I didn't want it to end.