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What she’s doing in Japan: a novel with heart


ASH, by Holly Thompson. Stone Bridge Press, 2001, 292 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Don’t read “Ash” if you’re a jaded expatriate pining for a ticket home. Don’t give a copy to an idealistic friend considering the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Above all, don’t lend it to Japanese acquaintances keen to discover what foreigners really think about aspects of life in this country.

The year is 1985 and our heroine Caitlin Ober, into her second year of an English-teaching program, has hit what foreign residents will recognize as a major downer. Well written though “Ash” is, it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Caitlin meticulously logs all the small grievances that, trivial in themselves, cumulatively have expats unearthing their suitcase and checking their return ticket. Children at the Kagoshima schools where Caitlin teaches “giggle the same inane bits of English .T.T. countless times every day”; a boorish oyaji asks if her pubic hair is as blonde as the hair on her head; she finds “the idea of using the shared bathroom repugnant, with all those women flushing over and over so no one could hear the sound of them urinating.”

In one supreme moment of frustration, Caitlin jettisons her plans for a seminar with a group of female Japanese teachers, and instead fires hostile questions at them: “How did they feel about late-night pornography on television? Had any of them ever been rubbed against by a man in a crowded bus or train? And how did they feel about sex tours to other Asian countries?” Caitlin spends much of the novel wondering what she is doing in Japan, and at times the reader is equally mystified.

As first-time author Holly Thompson unfolds her story, however, we soon realize that Caitlin’s problems come more from within than without. She has a dysfunctional family back in the United States, commitment problems with her Japanese boyfriend Hiroshi — and a Dark Secret.

It is this last, ironically, that succeeds in giving the book real heart, and is the reason why readers should persist with its unlikable heroine through the slow first half.

During Caitlin’s childhood, a 2-year research trip for her university professor father took the Ober family to Kyoto. They moved next door to the Oides, a Japanese family with two girls — Mie and Nobuko — the same ages as 8-year-old Caitlin and little sister, Lee.

On a day-trip with their fathers, best friends Mie and Caitlin strayed too far down a riverbank and the Japanese girl slipped in and drowned — an event that has haunted both families ever since.

Fifteen years on, back in Japan and with school summer holidays coming up, Caitlin resolves finally to exorcise Mie’s ghost — and her personal and family guilt — by a trip to see the Oides during Bon, when the spirits of the dead revisit the living. Burdened by the belief that she could have saved Mie, Caitlin is also given a “second chance” at rescue in her relationship with Naomi, a troubled half-Japanese, half-American girl whom she befriends in the story’s opening scenes.

It is in the presentation of the Oides that Thompson’s potential as a writer shines through. Warmth and restrained detail bring the characters, especially Mie’s mother, Harumi, and sister, Nobuko, convincingly to life. This family has suffered the cruelest loss, and the poignant brevity of the paragraphs in which Nobuko describes for Caitlin the shattered year following the girl’s death moves the reader.

Indeed, the Oides steal the reader’s affection from under the heroine’s nose. For all Caitlin’s frustration with Japan’s society, the author’s own appreciation of its people glows even in two sketches, gentle and persuasive, of Naomi’s Japanese grandfather and the elderly widow of the priest to whose house Caitlin was carried, rigid with shock, after Mie’s fall into the river.

If her Japanese characters claim the lion’s share of Thompson’s affections, her American characters are largely ciphers. Their presentation suffers from being almost exclusively secondhand, although Caitlin’s father speaks through a crucial letter and telephone call. The Obers seem to have wandered in from another novel altogether: anorexic sister; estranged, neurotic mother; and a matriarchal grandmother bearing the improbably Black South name of “Ma Ruth” despite being a white Pittsburgh math teacher.

Thompson is a graduate of New York University’s creative writing program, and “Ash” took her years to complete. One suspects that it has been much worked over, with close editorial input. There is an overly architectural structure to the book, not to mention a dimly developed title conceit — the ash pouring out of Kagoshima’s Sakurajima volcano during the summer of 1985, blanketing the city and (presumably) representing the dead weight of the past stifling the present.

For the tragedy of 15 years before, it appears, is the key not only to Caitlin’s troubles, but those of her entire family. Neatly — but, alas, implausibly — this enables Caitlin’s resolution of her guilt over her friend’s death to produce a domino effect of emotional release, delivering happy endings (or the promise of them) all round in a coda with the twee name “Repose.”

Even Naomi, a bright but prickly girl whose troubles over her Japanese-American split identity are depicted sympathetically and credibly, is supposedly comforted by the idea that she is Mie’s reincarnation — the reader having predicted this particular “twist” since learning just eight pages into the novel that the girl was born the year Mie died. (A “throwaway” piece of information to match Joel Haley Osment’s observation to Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense” that “some dead people don’t know they’re dead yet.”)

Nonetheless, “Ash” left me looking forward to Holly Thompson’s next novel. Thompson has a gift for observation, and if she can only let go and allow her characters’ psychology to segue naturally into “repose” (as with the Oides) instead of handing it to them on an overplotted narrative plate, she should blossom into a writer of some accomplishment.