When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka offers a devastating, compact first novel about one Japanese-American family during WWII. While the father is incarcerated on suspicion of treason, the mother, son, and daughter are sent to an internment camp in the desert. We relive the experience through five points of view, gaining depth through retelling.
A leaf, a jump rope, an old white dog. Otsuka selects simple images that evoke complex emotions. The family’s desperate sadness is blanketed by the outward calm of shikata ga nai (loosely, “It can’t be helped”). It’s a quintessentially Japanese outlook for enduring difficult times, and though Otsuka doesn’t invoke it directly, I think the attitude permeates.
The internment camp’s isolation spreads to the narrative style. Otsuka doesn’t delve into politics or historical nitpicking. She admirably refrains from assigning blame or negating alternative experiences. This is simply a tight frame on a single family. There are a few references to other Americans in the landscape: neighbors, released prisoners of war. But we see only what the family sees; we know only what they know.
Emperor plucks all the right emotional strings. It’s beautifully written in spare, evocative language. But it didn’t teach me anything new. My heart ached alongside the characters, and I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t need to read it again.
The 213 in 2013 series chronicles every book I read in 2013. Each review contains exactly 213 words, because 2013 words is too long and 2013 characters is too dang short.