Monday, January 18, 2016

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 23, 2015

When a badly scarred man knocks on the door of Amaterasu Takahashi’s retirement home and says that he is her grandson, she doesn’t believe him. But if you’ve become adept at lying, can you tell when someone is speaking the truth? Amaterasu knows her grandson and her daughter died the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki; she searched for them amongst the ruins of her devastated city and has spent years burying her memories of that brutal summer. So this man is either a miracle or a cruel trick. The stranger forces Amaterasu to revisit her past; the hurt and humiliation of her early life, the intoxication of a first romance, the fierceness of a mother’s love. For years she has held on to the idea that she did what she had to do to protect her family… but now nothing seems so certain. We can’t rewrite history, but can we create a new future?

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Ruins of Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki
My decision to request a review copy of Jackie Copleton's A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding was made blindly. I knew nothing about the author, I hadn't read a single review of the title and I'd no idea it was a debut piece. It wouldn't have mattered, I was sold on the subject matter, but I knew very little going into this book and was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered between its pages. 

Amaterasu is an atypical protagonist. She's emotionally complex and intensely vulnerable. She possesses a quiet strength, but it is masked by intense guilt and the pain of devastating personal loss. She is an elderly woman when she is first introduced, but the bulk of the story takes place during the middle years of her life and I loved that. I don't come across many historicals that feature women past the age of thirty and as such, felt Copleton's effort refreshing in both concept and design.

Copleton's description of Pikadon is at times graphic and her treatment may make some readers uncomfortable, but I personally appreciated the author's candor and feel the novel stronger for its authentic portrayal of the bombing of Nagasaki. Copleton's thesis is about family, the decisions we make, and the repercussions we reap, but the setting humanizes the tragic reality of the one the WWII's darkest chapters. 

As to the supporting cast, I greatly enjoyed Yuko, Kenzo, Shige, and Hideo, but Sato is nothing short of fascinating. It is clear that he is the narrative's antagonist, but Copleton writes him with an extraordinary amount depth. He is a convoluted personality that plays on multiple emotions and as a reader, I liked how he challenged me. I wanted to hate him outright, but the complexities of his motivations ultimately tempered my dislike with a certain degree of sympathy. 

When all is said and done, I found A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding a poignant novel that seamlessly blends human emotion and historic fact. It is a somber narrative that beautifully recreates the human condition against the horrors of Nagasaki. Highly recommended. 

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 The doctor had seen the city, the air so thick with the dead you could taste the dust of them. But Sato rejected what he could not bear to be true. He said Yuko couldn’t be gone; she would be helping survivors, or maybe she was sick in some medical centre, or maybe she had been taken out of the city. He offered so many possibilities. I had thought of them all. How could I tell him I knew she was dead because I felt the void of her, a vacuum inside me where a mother carries the soul of her offspring? Sometimes I would feel her, like a ghost limb that causes pain despite its amputation, but I knew this was a trick of the mind. She was dead, and so was her son.
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