review by Maryom
For Amaterasu Takahashi life as she knew it came to an end when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, causing tens of thousands of deaths, including those of her daughter Yuko and grandson Hideo. After the war, she and her husband, Kenzo, attempted to build a new life in America, but distance wasn't enough to help her forget her grief.
Now, after Kenzo's death, Amaterasu is living alone and friend-less in Pennsylvania when one cold winter morning, a middle-aged Japanese man arrives at her house, claiming to be her grandson Hideo. The scars on his face prove he's a survivor of the bomb, but his tale of being saved from the rubble of Nagasaki, raised first in an orphanage, then adopted by the doctor there, who happened to be Yuko's former lover, doesn't convince Amaterasu. In his briefcase though, Hideo has brought a packet of letters which force Amaterasu to confront the past, and particularly her actions which caused Yuko to be within the radius of destruction when the bomb fell.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is both the story of a woman coping with the death of her closest family members, and the inevitable survivor's guilt that comes with having avoided the dreadful cataclysm that killed them, and of the unravelling of family secrets. It's told through a mix of Amaterasu's reminiscences, the entries in her daughter's diary and the letters that Hideo has brought from Japan, offering three sides to the story as it unfolds in the years before and during WW2, and each chapter is headed by an explanation of a facet of Japanese culture pertinent to the events that unfold in it.
It's been a book club choice for both Radio 2 and Richard and Judy, and long-listed for the Bailey's Prize so I'd possibly built my expectations up too high, but something just didn't grab me about this book. Amaterasu's reminiscences definitely caught a feel of pre-war Japan, and it's undoubtedly clever in construction but, maybe because of how the story was told, through letters and diary entries, I didn't 'feel' for the characters, even the horror of Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bomb seemed somehow played down and not as shocking as it might have done. On the other hand, it's bound to provoke discussion, about the characters' actions and which of them (if any) deserves sympathy, so I can see why it would make a good, if not excellent, choice for a book club;
Maryom's review - 3.5 stars
Publisher - Windmill Books
Genre - adult fiction,