Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Date: March 11, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 378

From GoodReads: In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.

My review: I enjoyed this look at both pre-WWII life in Japan as well as the aftermath of the war, especially of the bombing of Tokyo. At least for most Americans' views of history (including, unfortunately, my own), the bombing of Tokyo has been largely overshadowed by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Epstein sums it up powerfully at one point, when Yoshi wonders "What kind of a people...does what was done that day and then has no concept of the enormity of their act?" (p339 of the ARC)* Epstein's novel helps provide a bridge over this gap in our historical understanding.

The wide array of characters, including both Japanese and American citizens, both civilians and military, was nice at some points and a detraction from the story at others. The many perspectives on the war, coming from different points in time, provided a good sense of nuance while offering insights into a variety of experiences. However, sometimes I felt like the characters' stories were not as developed as they could have been. The telling of their lives didn't feel very complete, as if sizable chunks had been omitted in order for the timeline and perspective to change. Rather than coming away with a fairly comprehensive view of the central event, I was left wanting to know even more about what everyone had experienced.

*Note that the quote may be different in the finished book. I don't have access to a finished copy to check against.

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