The Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably best known for her first novel The House of the Spirits, but since its publication in 1982 she has written over twenty other books, most recently last year’s In the Midst of Winter. The Japanese Lover (2015) is the first one I’ve read; I was drawn to it by its wartime setting and by the fact that, unlike some of her other books, it didn’t seem to include any magical realism, of which I’m not really a fan.
The novel opens in the present day with Irina Bazili, a young woman from Moldova, starting a new job at Lark House, a home for the elderly in San Francisco. Irina soon settles in, getting to know the old people in the home and forming a special bond with one of them, a woman called Alma Belasco who is able to live independently on the ground floor of the building but knows the day could soon come when she no longer can. When Irina is introduced to Seth, Alma’s grandson, the two are united in their concern for Alma and their curiosity over her occasional disappearances from Lark House. Eventually they piece together the story of Alma’s life, but this only happens gradually over the course of the entire novel.
When I first read the synopsis for this book I assumed it was a dual timeline novel with two alternating stories – Irina’s in the present day and Alma’s in the past. Well, it is, but not in the same way as dual timeline novels written by authors like Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton or Susanna Kearsley, for example. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a book with two distinct storylines, but more like a book set in the present with some chapters describing events from Alma’s past.
And Alma is a character with a very interesting past. At the beginning of the Second World War, she is sent away from her native Poland to stay with rich relatives in San Francisco and here she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. As time goes by, Alma and Ichimei begin to fall in love, but when war finds its way to America and the Japanese become ‘the enemy’, the Fukudas are sent to an internment camp. The two young lovers are later reunited, only to be separated again, a pattern which will repeat itself several times over the decades and their relationship will endure despite Alma’s marriage to another man. It is this relationship which Irina and Seth find so intriguing and which they hope to learn more about.
Although I struggled to believe in the love Alma and Ichimei felt for each other (I couldn’t sense much passion between them and, for me, it just wasn’t the heartbreaking romance I thought it should have been, given the setting and subject), I did find it interesting to read about the injustices suffered by the Fukuda family, their time in the internment camp, and the racial, cultural and class barriers that stood in the way of Ichimei and Alma’s happiness. However, Allende does not just focus on this storyline; she also delves into Irina’s background and those of some of the other characters, touching on a huge number of issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, pornography, drug use and abortion. All things which are relevant to modern life, but the book was not really long enough to explore them in much depth.
I found plenty of things to like about this book, but there were times when I felt that I was reading a long string of facts and information rather than an engaging story – too much ‘telling instead of showing’ – and there’s also not much dialogue, which could explain why I found it difficult to connect with Alma and Ichimei. I was slightly disappointed, but it’s possible that I just chose the wrong Isabel Allende book to begin with. I know she has a lot of fans who love her writing, so I’m hoping that if I try another of her books I’ll understand why.
This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a nationality.