When “The Name of the Rose” transformed Umberto Eco from obscure Italian academic to international best-selling author, a common complaint among readers of his dark novel was that only after wading through the first 100 pages or so of cryptic medievalism did a thumping good book emerge. Readers of “Eight Million Gods and Demons” by Hiroko Sherwin may find themselves wrestling with a similar problem, though for the reverse reason: Where with Eco the struggle is with complexity, with Sherwin it is with banality.
Sherwin’s yarn, however, is not a bad one. She traces the course of a family over a couple of generations from the optimistic high ground of 1890s Meiji Japan to the bleak wasteland of the country at the end of World War II. Her main protagonists in the early part of the book all labor under afflictions — Diet politician Taku, whose face is badly scarred by smallpox, marries the youthful Emi, who is an epileptic and very frail of body. Only at the third attempt does Emi give birth to a child who survives infancy — Jun, who, until he becomes a young man, is beset with a painfully bad stammer.
The one main character without such woes is the strikingly beautiful Hana. When Taku first meets her, she is a geisha, and she sees to it that he is smitten by her. Hana gets Taku to buy her out of geisha servitude and, despite already being married to Emi, as a good Meiji man he has no compunction about setting Hana up in her own household. He regales her with the finery she feels is her natural due; she bears him four children.
Hana is meant to be the novel’s main bad character. She is manipulative, clever and uses her considerable physical charms and sharp wit to devastating effect. She is easily the most fascinating personage in Sherwin’s novel. Her moods change like the weather. She is by turn compassionate and petty, warm and vengeful. Her children seem to both love her and loathe her.
In contrast to Emi and Jun, who the author sets out to portray as warm, thoroughly decent — and therefore thoroughly insipid — individuals, Hana is strong, vivacious, complex.
Covering a period of more than half a century in the space of just over 300 pages naturally results in a somewhat episodic work, though the sudden forward lurchings across the years are not necessarily a bad thing. The novel is at its best when Sherwin depicts sane people having to confront the basic insanity of their times, as Japan’s military juggernaut pursues its implacable course. Well before the Pacific War begins, young men are hauled off to China, many of them initially like Isamu: “When Taku met Isamu for the first time, he was the perfect specimen of a military education — rigid, patriotic, and ready to die for the Emperor’s horse.” Forced into committing barbaric acts in China, Isamu returns to Japan a shattered man.
The problems with banality in “Eight Million Gods” operate at the surface level. This novel is crying out for a decent edit. It really does deserve better. English is not the native tongue of Nagoya-born Sherwin, and her writing at times is reminiscent of high-school prose: “His mood had swung and now he wept like a monsoon” and “it also made her sad to think that the carefree, passionate lovers they once had been were now a pair of wounded birds afraid of touching each other.”
Sherwin has a soft spot for a simile. But whenever she dives into her bag of metaphors, she is prone to drag out the same device. By the sixth time that Sherwin describes Hana as “a peacock” or like one, the comparison has become very tedious.
According to one version of the old adage, everybody has one novel in them. And this would seem to be Sherwin’s. Publishing one’s first novel at the age of 67 is hardly the mark of the natural-born novelist. It would be interesting to know whether Sherwin has plans for further works.
The title’s 8 million gods and demons — a number Sherwin never tires of trotting out in the course of the book — refers to those in the Shinto pantheon. It is the number of deities that mortals have recourse to in efforts to remedy their difficult lives.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that having recourse to a single good editor would have remedied this book and transformed it from just a worthwhile effort into a rather fine work.