Published by Penguin Books on December 1st 2015
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In the tradition of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Piano Teacher, a heart-wrenching debut novel of family, forgiveness, and the exquisite pain of love When Amaterasu Takahashi opens the door of her Philadelphia home to a badly scarred man claiming to be her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. Her grandson and her daughter, Yuko, perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki. But the man carries with him a collection of sealed private letters that open a Pandora’s Box of family secrets Ama had sworn to leave behind when she fled Japan. She is forced to confront her memories of the years before the war: of the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that would drive them apart, and even further back, to the long, sake-pouring nights at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing. Will Ama allow herself to believe in a miracle?
If family dramas and historical tragedy is your reading bread and butter, add A Dictionary Of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton to your wishlist right away. Copleton hits the literary scene with quite the debut. A Dictionary Of Mutual Understanding is a short read that really packs in a punch in its sparse pages. While not as long, romantic, or engaging as Memoirs Of A Geisha, I can certainly see why the comparison is being made. Copleton’s debut is peppered with memorable characters and emotions.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is narrated by a woman named Amaterasu. Amaterasu is living in America, in Pennsylvania mourning the death of her husband, Kenzo. She has taken to drink. A scarred man shows up at her door claiming to be her grandson, Hideo. Amaterasu does not believe him because she has thought for so long that Hideo died in pikadon, or the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Hideo, however, has a packet of letters to prove himself. And so, Amaterasu opens the letters and her deceased daughter Yuko’s journals and begins to reflect back on the past, back on Nagasaki and all the blame she carries inside. She revisits a long dead affair carried on by her daughter and a married man, Sato, whom Amaterasu hates. She reflects back to this meeting that was supposed to happen with her daughter Yuko, at a cathedral, where Yuko was supposed to make a big decision. On the way to meet Yuko, Amaterasu’s sweet tooth hits and she goes to get some fruit in a store. This saves her life because right at that moment, the bomb hits. The only survivor in Amaterasu’s family is her husband Kenzo. She knows Yuko has died and she believes Hideo has died. Eventually the story goes all the way back to Amaterasu’s youth, before Yuko is even a gleam in her eye. What A Dictionary Of Mutual Understanding is about is family secrets and finding forgiveness and moving forward and celebrating life.
Amaterasu is such a compelling character. I actually much preferred the parts that explore her sordid past. If you have ever heard the song Fancy by Reba McIntyre, that is the song that reflects Amaterasu’s life to a T. She is a character who carries around so much pain – from losing almost the whole of her family, to knowing that her daughter is tangled up with a man who is no good for her, to living through such a traumatic event. It is fascinating seeing the well of Amaterasu’s strength, even if she might be doing the wrong thing in her daughter’s best interest. I will say that based on the back cover description, I was expecting more about Amaterasu’s past and her working at the sake bar, but that doesn’t come into play until nearly the end and even then, there is not a whole lot of page time spent on her past. I found this disappointing because her past is definitely the most well written and compelling part of the book.
I felt like A Dictionary Of Mutual Understanding failed to live up to its full potential. I really would have liked more exploration of the main character, Amaterasu’s past. Yuko is interesting and I liked the glimpses of her journals, but I just did not feel that connection with her character like I did with Amaterasu’s. I get the ultimate tragedy involved, just it failed to hit me the way that it did other readers. I have read other blurbs where people mention crying over the book. I did not cry or even tear up while reading Copleton’s debut. This disappoints me because I was expecting to feel those sorts of emotions and it just did not happen.
I will, however, admit, that I was fairly engrossed in this book. I found the plotting to be well done. I just would have liked more with Amaterasu’s past. Otherwise, this is a relatively decent read. Perhaps it lacks the grandiose writing and plotting of Memoir Of A Geisha, the book that the blurb compares this to, but otherwise this is a pretty okay book.