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‘The Japanese Lover’ Treads Softly and Touches Deep

"The Japanese Lover" by Isabel Allende (Simon & Schuster)


"The Japanese Lover,” the latest addition to a prolific body of work by acclaimed Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende, reads like its titular namesake: self-aware, gentle, and brimming with forbidden love. As Allende deftly beams the story through the lens of 80-year-old Alma Belasco’s life—focalizing her romantic journey with Japanese gardener and lifelong lover Ichimei Fukuda—it touches upon deeper, universal questions, including the historical injustices of race and class surrounding World War II. While it would be tempting to devolve into a melodramatic treatment of the subject matter, Allende handles such weighty themes with an experienced hand. Her pen’s light touch delivers difficult moments with a quiet resonance that permeates the novel’s nuanced relationships.

In the novel, relationships—romantic and otherwise—are the foundation around which other elements unify. The central romance between Alma and Ichimei is organically recounted by the former in her old age through non-chronological fragments of her memory, unexplained narrative shifts to the past, and short excerpts from Ichimei’s old love letters. While a few transitions between these perspectives feel abrupt and unnatural, most flow smoothly between the present and the 1950s, mediated by common characters, locations, or emotions. The most effective method used to traverse space-time in the text is the fragments of correspondence between the two aged lovers. Ichimei, “an idealist, a dreamer, with a taste for drawing and poetry, more inclined toward meditation than commerce” writes in a way reflective of his nature: Simple and sweet, drifting like a cloud towards a faraway home up above. Chronological jumps notwithstanding, the lyrical passages of memory effectively ground the scattered particles of places, people and events in the narrative of Alma and Ichimei’s romance.

In addition to love, another thematic pillar of the novel is its sweeping historical commentary, primarily accomplished in the novel’s retrospective sections. Allende makes impressive efforts to provide accurate information and establish a realistic historical background for the post-WWII past; at one point, she spends the greater portion of a page outlining Pearl Harbor, chronicling everything from the “severely damaged twenty one ships” to “Americans’ isolationist mentality” to “roundups and arrests” to “dynamite used by small farmers to remove trunks and rocks from their crop fields, which [was] seen as proof of terrorism.” Primarily relayed through the eyes of the Fukuda family, the almost matter-of-fact descriptions of internment camp conditions —“...twelve huts per block, forty-two blocks in total; each of them [with] a canteen, laundry, showers, and latrines....eight thousand evacuees had to live in little more than seven thousand square feet”—are juxtaposed with the deeply emotional images of human relations—“the Fukuda family… wrapped in a pair of blankets they had been given, curled up together on the camp beds to lend each other warmth and comfort.” This careful attention to detail makes concrete a world which is unlikely unfamiliar to readers.

In the hands of a less careful author, the combination of intense romantic narrative and deep-rooted social commentary could easily have proven deadening, its effect either diluted by an overly cautious touch or crushed by a heavy hand. Allende, however, showcases in "The Japanese Lover" the same technical finesse and artistic judgement she demonstrates in her famous work “The House of the Spirits”; her clear style gracefully negotiates between the two different subjects of personal romance and historical injustice. Rather than let one end obstruct the other, Allende creatively uses history as a lens through which to understand the characters’ romantic journeys and vice versa. For example, character relations in the novel are dependent on their historical context: Alma’s first reaction upon seeing Ichimei is to note that he “[looked] nothing like the Chinese she had seen in the illustrations in the Encyclopedia Britannica,” and when the question of marriage arises, Allende fluidly incorporates the reality of social and racial divide between the lovers. Ultimately, Alma rejects Ichimei because of her inability to accept the hardship associated with life within a Japanese community—“She wasn’t going to start a family in a wooden shack with a tin roof and live among gardeners with spades in their hands.” Alma and Ichimei’s relationship is transfigured by Allende’s realistic portrayal of social pressures during this period and their love narrative is made more three-dimensional by the existence of hostile forces. Through this synthesis Allende delivers—with characteristic understated tenderness—the most beautiful observations. “I imagine you running here,” Ichimei says, at one point in the letters. “Sometimes love hurts.” A few words suffice to convey their distance from each other and his yearning.

Departing from the magic realist bent of many of her former works, Allende explores with quiet force the equally human concerns of romance and pluralism with a multifaceted storyline grounded in historical truth. "The Japanese Lover" erects two thematic pillars of love and prejudice to produce a story that strikes a masterful emotional balance. More importantly, the novel crafts characters that are profoundly compelling in their complex struggle to value love despite forces—youth and age, proximity and distance, society and self—beyond their control.

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