Untangling the elusive past across time


The first 115 pages of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s debut novel, “Picking Bones From Ash,” incredibly heightened my anticipation of a great, literary read. Then the crash came, splintering my expectations from the weight of disgruntlement.

PICKING BONES FROM ASH, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Graywolf Press, 2009, 282 pp., $24 (hardcover)

Still, although the novel ultimately falls short, Mockett must be commended for her auspicious and ambitious first foray into fiction. Mockett’s prose deftly reconstructs life in rural Japan in the 1950s, a harsh world where talent is a woman’s only true salvation.

Satomi, 11, lives with her mother Akiko, the beautiful and mysterious proprietor of an izakaya, or pub, in the small town of Kuma-ume. Mockett asserts from the beginning that these women are different, magically separate from their bumpkin, judgmental neighbors — “moon princesses” destined for something great, especially the young Satomi, a piano prodigy.

Mockett herself displays the elusive talents that her female characters wield as a talisman against reality. Her images adroitly reveal her characters and human nature, as when Akiko compares the townswomen to “ants who methodically dissect the same rice ball, when a nice omanju is sitting in plain view.”

Mockett’s eloquence has been rewarded: Stanford Libraries’ 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing recently shortlisted the novel.

Mockett, half-Japanese, grew up in California, and part of my appreciation sprang from her authentic Japanese eye in the first section — how Satomi leaps off the page as an imaginative ninja attacker at play, only to plant herself firmly in the reality of postwar Japan, a hungry waif desperately digging up coveted bamboo shoots for a feast.

Akiko, as well, is portrayed as gutsy yet vulnerable. A single shamed mother, she pins both her pride and hopes on her talented child, a vibrant free spirit who disdains the townswomen’s scorn until she is humbled by their rejection at the public bath.

Mockett’s brilliance exists primarily in her ability to sympathetically render her characters’ imperfections.

We understand why Satomi grows into a prideful snob, and we still like her. We empathize with Akiko’s limited choices and find her sudden marriage a believable path for a mother suddenly faced with restrictions on caring for her daughter.

With such wondrous promise, the novel sinks almost as soon as it leaves Japan for America and Part II, when the narrator switches to Satomi’s own 11-year-old daughter Rumi.

Rumi believes her mother to be dead, and lives with her British father, an antiques dealer in California, a world Mockett desperately tries to color as magical as Satomi’s.

Even a child gifted with the talent to “hear” antiques like Rumi could not charm my imagination, and I ended up skimming the novel to the end, only because Mockett had made me care about the fates of Satomi and Akiko.

It was probably inevitable that in a first novel boasting of mysticism, feminine power, the role of mothers and daughters, and a narrative that spans the globe and more than 50 years, that something would prove shallow. Mockett’s efforts toward the end of the novel do not live up to the promise at the beginning.

Her characters repeatedly make choices seemingly incongruent with their hearts. Her villains smirk with one-dimensional disdain without providing a realistic foil for the main characters’ struggles.

Despite my disappointment with “Picking Bones From Ash” following such high hopes, I will look for Mockett’s next work. Her talent and unflagging determination to learn and improve could be her salavation.