Book Review 

Umezawa aims high in first novel

The Whistler Public Library in partnership with Pique Newsmagazine and the Whistler Writers Group is doing a series of book reviews for the fall. Fiction, non-fiction, off beat or mainstream, read what our local writers have to say about some of the most interesting books written by Canadian authors. Then drop by the library and order your copy and see what you think.

We’ll run a series of four reviews, then we’ll ask you to tell us what you think. Do you like reading book reviews in the Pique? Would you like to see more? For the next few weeks, you can save the money you spend on the New York Times and get your book reviews from the local source – the Whistler Writers Group and the Pique.

The Truth About Death and Dying

Doubleday Canada, 2002,

291 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Lisa Richardson

It's a bold move to call your first novel The Truth About Death and Dying. A reader reaches for it, looking for insight into the arcane, a short-cut to the profound. Of course, that's the thing about shooting high: you're often short of the mark.

Rui Umezawa's first novel charts the lives of three generations of the Hayakawa family, kicking off during the Second World War in their native Japan. The narrative skips back and forth through time: a high-octane eyes-squeezed-shut carousel-ride. Each time you open your eyes, a different setting draws you in – contemporary downtown Toronto, a bombing raid in Tokyo, Christmas preparations in the mid-West... It's disorienting, but eventually you add dimensions to each thin character. By the end, their stories have unravelled like so many balls of yarn; once-tidy appearances become tangled looping masses, the entire unstructured length of lives exposed.

As peripatetic as the author, (a Torontonian from Japan, who grew up in Italy, the U.S. and Canada), the patriarch Shoji leaves Japan after WW2, studies in England and moves to the States. His eldest son later moves north to Toronto, and the remaining fragments of family follow. Regardless of place, the characters are dispossessed, alienated. Not just as immigrants – they suffer an everyman alienation – disaffected because they're different, angry, old, bereft...

The young generation bullrush headlong and blindfolded into life. Toshi, the overweight and autistic youngest son, distracted by an incessant humming in his head, has flashes of insight:

Hot or cold implied movement, and movement implied time. Toshi imagined that when his father died, he stepped outside time, and therefore was in a place neither hot nor cold. Toshi imagined Shoji swimming in a vast, black ocean.

Toshi's awareness, coloured with the hues across the spectrum, folded outwards like inverse origami. He heard Shoji's voice and felt his presence. He also heard and felt his grandparents, and even Kei and Angie and Mitsuyo, who, he knew, weren't dead yet. The idea twisted his mind into a pretzel, and yet he felt a sublime joy. Outside time, everything that will happen has happened... He felt his father's spirit, still characterised by a physicist's curiosity, confronted by this same vast understanding of time and space that could only be seen from this place. He was aware of his grandmothers, whose souls were free from all the pettiness of having to treat their children as adults.

The more poignant scenes reveal the grandparents secret lives, past and present, revealing them as more than the desiccated household clutter their family consider them. Grandmother Hanako gets drunk with bikers at the local pool hall, remembers a city in flames and wonders why her grandchildren living in the midst of abundance are devoid of happiness.

Umezawa's language can be clunky, in that it strives to be poetry but is weighed down by its own ambition: "Toshi let free a sigh as heavy as the world." "A sound like a toad choking erupted from Toshi's stomach." Its clumsiness gets in the way of narrative's simple revelations. The author's use of humour, to counter the effect of 300 pages of overwhelming familial dysfunction and war reminiscences spread thick with suffering, relies on slapstick, farting jokes and chronic masturbation.

However, the novel debunks preconceptions I had about Japanese culture and takes the reader a step closer to realizing we are all the same; "them" and "us" is a contrivance. With the warmongers south of the border beating their drums, it's timely to reflect on the impact of war on everyday lives... to look at a culture a generation once considered an enemy and realize they're just like us. Perhaps the Americans might realize this about the Iraqis one day too.

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