For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.
As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.
My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.
This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.
Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.