Monday, February 8, 2021

Asha Lemmie - Fifty Words for Rain

Kyoto, Japan, 1948. "If a woman knows nothing else, she should know how to be silent. . . . Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist." Such is eight-year-old Noriko "Nori" Kamiza's first lesson. She will not question why her mother abandoned her with only these final words. She will not fight her confinement to the attic of her grandparents' imperial estate. And she will not resist the scalding chemical baths she receives daily to lighten her shameful skin.
The illegitimate child of a Japanese aristocrat and her African American GI lover, Nori is an outsider from birth. Though her grandparents take her in, they do so only to conceal her, fearful of a stain on the royal pedigree that they are desperate to uphold in a changing Japan. Obedient to a fault, Nori accepts her solitary life for what it is, despite her natural intellect and nagging curiosity about what lies outside the attic's walls. But when chance brings her legitimate older half-brother, Akira, to the estate that is his inheritance and destiny, Nori finds in him the first person who will allow her to question, and the siblings form an unlikely but powerful bond—a bond their formidable grandparents cannot allow and that will irrevocably change the lives they were always meant to lead. Because now that Nori has glimpsed a world in which perhaps there is a place for her after all, she is ready to fight to be a part of it—a battle that just might cost her everything.

Comment: This is the debut book by author Asha Lemmie. I no longer remember why I added this to my TBR but haven't enjoyed other books featuring Asian characters and culture, I decided I was curious enough to want to try this one as well.

In this story we follow the life of Nori, the daughter of a Japanese woman and an Afro-American soldier during on the post war. Nori is born out of an affair which means she won't be recognized by her mother's family but having no way to turn, her mother does leave her with her grandparents, authoritarian people who keep her in the attic during her childhood. Something special happens when she meets her older half brother, with whom she develops a close friendship. However, life isn't good for Nori and she has to face several obstacles until she becomes a grown woman but when happiness is finally in sight, will she be able to let go of her past and embrace it?

I think the author had a great idea with this book. I suppose it can be known - or guessed - that many people suffered with illegitimacy everywhere and in such a culturally strict society as Japan was, even more so. I think the idea of exploiting the possible life of someone born in the stigma of an interracial relationship was a clever and unique one. However, there were some plot choices which I don't think worked well.

Nori is a child when her mother leaves her with her grandparents, even though she knows Nori's life won't be a loving one. It can be quite interesting to speculate on her motivation but the fact is Nori is brought up as a poor relative who has no prospects. Still, she is given food and learning if not love. The only person Nori has is the nanny/maid Akiko, at least until Nori's older brother, from her mother's legitimate marriage, comes to spend the summer. The two shouldn't develop a close relationship but that is what happens and I think this was probably the best part of the book, to see how they still dedicated themselves to be there for the other.

It is a little odd how dependent on each other they go, especially Nori who seemed to see no one else. I can understand why some readers found this to be an unbalanced relationship. The way things are described and how the story progresses only delays the unfair and negative situations Nori will be facing in her life. Some passages were difficult to read but I'd say the author never went far with this, meaning, the really bad things are only a threat and don't happen explicitly on page. Nevertheless, there's this sense of doom looming in the horizon.

Now, perhaps were this to be written by a more experienced author, things might have felt different, but to me the whole story seemed rather obvious in how the author attempted to give off drama vibes. Some things were so melodramatic! And they didn't have to be, a simpler writing/choice of plotting could have given the drama and the notion of inevitability which I assume the author was aiming for, but perhaps she wasn't certain of how to do it. There are some situations which don't lead to any specific conclusion and other things are so over the top, I can't help but wonder at its role in the big scheme of things.

Since this is the author's first work, I can only imagine she had many ideas and wanted to use them all. The problem is that, therefore, some details lost importance and others felt ridiculous. I'm thinking of the end, in particular. Like other readers have said in their reviews, I just think the end was not in par with Nori's evolution and how she went from little girl wanting to please to woman who lived one day at a time. The end was really ridiculous, considering the moment in time, this was the late 50s or 60s not the past centuries. I think it was really disappointing how the author decided to put Nori in a journey back in time instead of allowing her to have a life which would match what she went through.

I won't talk about the cultural adequacy of the Japanese elements included in the book since I'm not familiar with that but it seems this could have been done better, according to the opinion of some Japanese readers. I think I see why the author made this choice, considering the whole historical information we have from what Japan was like at that time and how unique their culture is but I can't really tell if it was that vital the story was set there...

All things considered, the story had great bones, very interesting scenes but I think the author didn't quite reach the goal she might have been aiming for. At least, I feel that the end wasn't suitable for the type of evolution the main character seemed to have done.

Grade: 6/10

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