Saturday, August 19, 2017

Jamie Ford - Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

In 1986, the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps in the US were discovered in the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown. Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl with whom he forged a bond of friendship as a youth, and so he embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Comment: This book was suggested to me by someone who likes historical fiction and knows I also read the genre but only when I found the title in a bargain deal did I finally get it. I'm quite pleased with it although, in terms of genre, I've read stronger stories on the subject.

This book is focused on Henry Lee's life. Henry is Chinese and he went through his childhood during the 40s, which means he lived in America, during the complicated World War II years. He was sent to school on a scholarship and he got to be in a school where most students are white. Along with Henry, there was also another foreign student, Keiko. Although she was born in America, her family is Japanese and the story focuses a lot on the challenges of being different and also Japanese when they were the enemy overseas.
Now that Henry is in his late fifties, his memories are brought to life because of the findings in the Panama Hotel, a place many Japanese families used as storage when forced to leave their houses during the evacuation of Japanese people to camps in the desert until the end of the war. Henry sees an umbrella and everything comes back to life...

I liked the premise of this book, a man recovering things, dealing with the recent death of his wife and the not always easy relationship with his son and now even the memories of his past. 
Most of the book is set on Henry's childhood experiences but we have frequent glimpses of his thoughts now and what it all means to think about long gone things.

I guess it can be very obvious the purpose was to present a drama story (apparently based on some real facts) but while still leaving space for personal interpretation. On one hand, I liked it that it wasn't overly dramatic, too obvious on the tearjerker capacity but at the same time, the way the plot was developed, some situations didn't feel as tidy as they could to enhance the emotional impact: so summarize, it wasn't as emotional as I imagined it would.

I liked Henry as a character and even his musical taste, which has to be quite the different take on what one assume people from Henry's background would appreciate but his love for jazz was not only a good segment to make some scenes better inserted in the story but it was different enough to make an impression. How this related to the main part of the plot was probably one of the most interesting details of the book.

We, of course, slowly learn about Henry's wishes and his personality by watching his actions and his attitude towards others. It was amazing how he became friend with Keiko, someone even more ostracized than he was and how that initial friendship has shaped all his life choices. When we have books centered, or mostly, on relationships it's always weird not to have the other person's POV in a fluid and suitable manner, even when the focus isn't on that. It's just that while it's great to see things from Henry's perspective, not having Keiko's unless in some obvious reactions she has, can be quite disappointing because some scenes would have been much stronger if we could see both sides. When it comes to the end of the story I wish I could have had more Keiko.

This story is very rich in historical and cultural details and in this regard, one can see the author's work in research and how many real details were added. But the fictional part wasn't as emotional as I would think it could be and even when it comes to Henry and his son's relationship I find this lacking to be a weak point, since it would have been great to see them evolve together more.
Some readers mention in reviews that some things are too obvious laid out to us. I guess I concur, since it would have been great to see some scenes with more impact and less detail, I guess. Or, at least, with the sort of details that would bring more feeling to the equation.

All in all, this was a good effort, I had a great time reading, it was engaging and fluid enough but I hoped for a bit more emotional content and more complexity as well.
Still, a good choice for beginners in the genre.
Grade: 8/10

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