The extraordinary story of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is here skillfully brought to life in a sumptuous historical novel told from the perspectives of the most important women in his memorable life.

The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong.
304 pages

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE, Historical fiction.

We begin on the sun-kissed island of Lefkada in the Ionian Islands of Greece where Hearn was born in 1850, the product of an ill-starred romance. Through the narration of Hearn's mother, Rosa Antoniou Kassimatis, Monique Truong redolently captures the scents and tastes of Hearn's birthplace, where his mother established in him a pattern of eternal longing and hunger for exotic flavors and tales.

In the second part of the novel, we are transported to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1870s where Hearn emigrated as a penniless 19-year-old, sleeping rough on park benches and discovering the intriguing African-American sections of town. Soon Hearn marries Alethea Foley, an ex-slave and cook in his boarding house, who satiates his roving appetites for a while.

Finally we encounter Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai household, who Hearn married soon after his arrival in Japan and who fed her renderings of traditional tales into Hearn's all-consuming ears.

The novel empathetically imagines the circumstances of these forgotten women, so influential and supportive of Hearn. Yet the truest kinship lies between author Truong and Hearn himself, both segueing between vastly different cultures, making the common humanity of even the most disparate lives instantly accessible.