Translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Reviewed by Alice Farrant
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende is a tender love story, traversing from the 1930s through to the present day, and discussing race while being honest about the difficulties of being in love in intolerant circumstances.
When Irina Bazili begins working at Lark House, a home for the elderly, you are unexpectedly drawn into the world of its inhabitants. One by one new characters are introduced before the story begins – without you realising – focusing on two people, Irina and Alma.
Alma and Irina’s stories split the novel in half. Chapter by chapter Alma and Irina’s lives are revealed: from Alma’s escape from Poland before the Second World War and Irina’s journey from Moldova to America to be with her mother, to both of them arriving at Lark House. It’s mostly chronological, though occasional memories are scattered unexpectedly into chapters. They are both strong women, following their own paths while trying to escape trauma and embrace happiness. Alma and Irina may be generations apart in age, but they are sisters in temprament.
Allende looks at love from so many different angles that it is impossible to find this novel anything less than heartwarming. From the passionate romance of forbidden love, to the stoic unwavering sacrificial love of family and friends. Yet there is a shadow over The Japanese Lover and Allende is unafraid to hide away from darker subjects. Characters are far from perfect, marching to the beat of their own drum.
Alma’s life long love affair with Ichimei, son of the Japanese gardener, gives the novel its title. It is a overflowing, powerful love. Alma feels more connected to Ichimei than anyone else in the world. Though time and regret often separate them, they are two opposite ends of a magnet pulling towards each other. It’s a doomed relationship, and eventually Alma choses privilege over the stigma that would come from choosing to marry Ichimei.
This is an honest, devastatingly selfish, reaction from Alma. Allende captures the struggle of a young girl forced to chose between what and who she loves. Would they have been happy living together in racist America? Their love is clandestine, beyond mortal love, and bringing that romance down to earth would have shattered that connection. If Alma had given up her privileged life for Ichimei, it would have been unrealistic. I felt a connection with Alma In prioritising her own needs; love doesn’t protect you from the world and deep down she knew this. You want her to be stronger, to fight for Ichimei, but she doesn’t, she won’t.
Irina and Alma are not the only characters Allende chooses to highlight. Ichimei, his siblings and parents, were the main highlight of The Japanese Lover. A loyal family, stretched to the limits of survival, they are continually tested, and though there are losses along the way they only get stronger.
The Evacuation order was aimed at protecting not only the Pacific coast but also the Japanese themselves, as they could become the victims of misunderstanding by the rest of the population; it was a temporary solution and would be carried out in a humane fashion. The was the official line, but meanwhile the hate speech spread. “A snake is always a snake, wherever it lays its eggs.”
My favourite part of the novel, which may sound uncouth, was discovering how the Second World War affected Japanese Americans. Alma is sent to America before she can be persecuted for being a Jew, but Ichimei, already an American citizen, is taken with his parents and siblings to internment camps in Utah post-Pearl Harbour. I had no idea this had happened. History is written by the winners, and much like other atrocious acts of the white western world they should be unearthed.
They dug a hole, filled it with water, and so made a pond that was the delight of the children. With his magic fingers, Ichimei built a wooden yacht that he sailed across the pond; less than four days later there were races of dozens of these small boats.
Ichimei and his family cope with the internment in different ways. His elder brothers enlist and rebel, his mother takes charge and Ichimei grows his plants. They are survivors and the whole camp works together to make the best of the situation they have been trapped in.
Despite The Japanese Lover’s moving plot and developed characters it does at times over-pack itself, and certain story-lines felt as if they were being used to propel the story rather than add meaning or depth to the tale. In addition, the attitude towards Irina’s childhood trauma was uncomfortable, depicted as something that could easily be ‘got over’, rather than an element of Irina that would always exist and should have been respected. At one point Irina explains to Seth – Alma’s grandson – she may never be able to have sex, to which Seth blithely says she’ll have to get over it but he’ll deal with it for now. Luckily, these fragments do not disturb the overall enjoyment of the story, though they are problematic elements.
Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover, (Simon and Schuster, 2015). 978-1471152177, 322pp., hardback.