Friday 19 June 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth Harmon

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fictional drama

"When bombardier Micah Lund dies on a mission over Hiroshima, his spirit remains trapped in the land of his enemies. Dazed, he follows Kiyomi Oshiro, a war widow struggling to care for her young daughter, Ai. Food is scarce, work at the factory is brutal, and her in-laws treat her like a servant. Watching Kiyomi and Ai together, Micah reconsiders his intolerance for the people he’d called the enemy. As his concern for the mother and daughter grows, so does his guilt for his part in their suffering.Micah finds a new reality when Kiyomi and Ai dream—one which allows him to interact with them. While his feelings for Kiyomi deepen, imminent destruction looms. Hiroshima is about to be bombed, and Micah must warn Kiyomi and her daughter. In a place where dreams are real, Micah races against time to save the ones he loves the most. In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow is a tale about love in its most extraordinary forms—forgiveness, sacrifice, and perseverance against impossible odds."

There is much to be admired about this book. There is a strong opening, and from the start it is clear that the author has a knack of describing scenes with vivid clarity. It was unsettlingly easy to imagine what it was like in the B29 bomber in the furious moments of emergency before Micah had to eject.

Pre-atomic-bomb Hiroshima is depicted in stunning detail. I really felt as if I could see, hear and smell it. I took delight in small detail: people riding bicycles on wheel rims because the tyres had worn out; a shuttered house lets no sunshine in and 'darkness filled the corners'. You find yourself nodding, knowing exactly what it is like to come in from the brightness of day to such a room. The descriptions of the countryside surrounding Hiroshima were sumptuous and if the author hasn't actually visited this location, I'd be amazed.

The portrayal of Kiyomi is sensitively done, especially as we have a man writing from a woman's perspective. She is written as a three-dimensional character and her story serves to show how poorly women fared after one 'mistake' - in her case having a child out of wedlock. Micah is appalled by much of what he witnesses about Japanese culture but I did question his assumption that all would change after the war. Surely the US never intended to occupy Japan and change its culture and society?

Micah learns an abject lesson about prejudice as, in fact, does Kiyomi. I did feel at times though that the message was a bit unsubtle and I also wondered if Micah would have been led to question these prejudices had he not been in love with Kiyomi but just been observing the ordinary folk of Hiroshima.

I had no problem suspending disbelief and accepting the notion of the spirit world although there were some inconsistencies. For example, it is made clear that there is a universal language there, but towards the end Micah is teased for sounding more and more Japanese. There is also a lot about the spirit world which is rather convenient.

This is a brave attempt at making profound statements about the horrors of war. Unfortunately the setting and premise meant that I had guessed the ending way before it came, although does that matter when the story is interesting and enjoyable?

I received an advance copy and would hope that the typos - mainly missing or incorrectly-placed commas and apostrophes - will be rectified before publication.

There are also some strange choices of past participles, none 'wrong' but used here incorrectly: bore (bored), awakened (woke/awoke) raised (rose) shined (shone) which made my gaze 'stick' to the page and this, coupled with the almost exclusive use of the simple past tense, was jarring. 'We worried the priest drove you away' provides less richness than 'we were worried [that] the priest had driven you away.' 

Oddly, the description of the immediate effect of the bombing is not nearly as gruesome and upsetting as it could have been. On balance, I think that the restraint is probably a good thing.
An interesting read.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©Lucy Townshend 
 e-version reviewed

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