15 April 2015
The last time I read something with a Japanese background was James Clavell’s Shogun and the last time it was something Irish was Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, neither of which I fully apprehended. The Tokyo Express has a background set in Japan and Ireland, so I approached this book with some trepidation. And then of course there were resonances with Irish novelist David Mitchell, who has lived in Japan and written about it and is married to a Japanese woman.
The cover blurb describes it as two love stories separated by over sixty years; one emerging from the aftermath of WW2 American bombing while the other is torn asunder by modern day circumstances. The problem with loading different stories, milieu and events into one book is how to hold it all together. A reader wants to know where they are with the characters and their lives, and romantic books like John Fowles’s (a writer also with connections to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex) The French Lieutenant’s Woman can seem arch and far-fetched.
These concerns soon dispersed as I got into the first few chapters. The writer wisely concentrates on the modern day because there is enough going on. Conor, a sympathetically drawn young Irishman, is looking for his Japanese wife, Mimi, who is feared lost in the Tsunami that struck the north-east coast of Japan in 2011. Walking in its aftermath, raking through the debris, the quietness of the devastation all around, we are completely immersed in his horror and sense of hopelessness. And above all guilt, because he was in Ireland at the time it struck.
Roll back six months and Conor finds out that his father, Da’, has died. People in his work place seem cold and indifferent to his grief; it’s the Japanese way. In anger, he quits his job and heads for the lurid bars where he goes on a bender, visiting some of the more exotic delights to be had on offer in Tokyo. He arrives home drunk and repentant. He agrees with Mimi that they will head to Ireland - Mimi is worried about earthquakes and the family business needs running after the death of his father. They arrive on a grey-windswept day and Mimi soon realises what a mistake they’ve made. Conor’s Irish mother, Mammy, is a bigot and a blunt talker who appears blithely indifferent to how hurtful her unguarded comments really are - call it no-nonsense Irish. So with Mimi feeling isolated, Conor suggests a visit to a care home, where his Granda’, Owen resides. Owen had once been to Tokyo. It turns out that he had not just visited Tokyo but had worked as a volunteer junior doctor helping with the clean-up operation at the end WW2. Owen and Mimi hit it off immediately.
The Irish dialogue is lively and authentic-sounding and Mimi’s discomfort is genuine amidst the stifling claustrophobia of a small Irish town. With some of the more hectic scenes - amid the blarney, endless cups of tea, pints of Guinness and a hand-wandering priest - images of Father Ted kept popping into my head but that’s not such a bad thing.
Owen’s account of his time in Japan is told through his diary, which is a perfectly valid literary device but can make it sound slightly one dimensional (first person, present tense); so it reads more like a story (you don’t get dialogue in a diary). He tells the tale of how he met and fell in love with Mariko, a politicised Japanese student girl of 20, who lost many of her relatives in the firestorm bombings of March 1945. Mariko graphically describes the horrors which took place, atrocities which are generally less well-known to the West than the atomic bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Owen agrees to help Mariko make these top secret atrocities public but first they must reach out to the people. So they go out and visit towns and villagers; she’s a women’s activist, he’s a doctor.
Naturally there are sub-plots and intrigues. Conor’s first love, who later becomes a lesbian biker, dies in a crash and his gay brother, Ronan, turns out to be the illegitimate son of his auntie. Only in Ireland. And the revitalised business proves to be a hit with the locals. But these diversions never undermine the romantic conundrum of the book: if true love can span oceans and cultures then how much can its failure lead to guilt?
I’m not sure I like reading books on guilt; it’s a corrosive, self-destructive emotion - one entirely based on a vain, higher ideal of oneself – and having once been slapped about the face with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov guilt-ridden soul for half a thousand pages I wasn’t sure I wanted to plough through it all over again. But again, the writer has a light touch and most of the book takes place before the guilt. And even afterwards, life goes on; people have to get up to go to work, eat, sleep and rebuild their lives - the redemptive qualities of forgiveness only available to the fortunate.
The Tokyo Express is quite a long read. However, it is near flawless in its writing, deeply-researched in its scale and scope, beautifully presented and highly enjoyable. I’m surprised it hasn’t been picked up by a major publisher.