t's at times like this that I wish I were a writer and not just a reader as there is no way my words can ever do this beautiful novel the justice that it deserves. I would go as far as using the word 'masterpiece' to describe it and I feel a little bereft at the thought that I no longer have the wonderful world of Henry Lee to escape to having finished the book.
A dual time narrative, set in 1942 and 1986 - in Seattle, USA, with Henry Lee as the main character. In 1942, Henry is 13 years old and attending a Caucasian school in the city. Henry doesn't really know just who he is. At home he is forbidden to speak Cantonese as his parents want him to be 'American', yet neither his Father or his Mother speak English well enough to hold a conversation. At school, he is bullied and picked on by the white American pupils and called a 'white devil' by the Chinese kids in the area who attend the Chinese school. And then there is the badge that his Father insists that he wear on his jacket - the one that reads 'I Am Chinese'. Henry's father is terrified that someone will mistake him for a a Japanese boy - America is at war and the Japanese are the enemy, even those that were born in America.
At school, Henry helps out in the school canteen and it is when American-born of Japanese parents, Keiko begins to work there too that he realises just how different he is to his father. To him Keiko is his special friend, she's American, her parents are professional people, she doesn't even speak Japanese. Henry and Keiko become allies - discovering Jazz music and spending hours together.
And then, the USA Government decide to 'evacuate' everyone of Japanese origin. Keiko and her family are sent to ready-made internment camps where they will stay for the next three years or so. In the rush to leave, some of the Japanese families ask their friends to look after some of their possessions - others are stored in the basement of the Panama Hotel. It is when Henry's father finds Keiko's possessions in his room that he finally stops speaking to him altogether. The 1980s section of the story opens with the discovery of the possessions that have been stored in the basement for over 40 years - as Henry passes by, all his memories of his friendship with Keiko rush back to him - memories both bitter and sweet.
To say anymore about the story would give it all away - and I don't want to do that. I do want to urge everyone to pick up this wonderfully written, beautifully evocative story and read it. It's in no way soppy or sentimental, yet it is a true love story, but also a story that will haunt the reader. The treatment of the Japanese people, the internment camps and the subsequent loss of identity is a terrible thing, yet the stoicism and acceptance of the people shines through in this story - the whole book captures the resilience of humans. The characters are expertly drawn, with Henry and his jazz-playing friend Sheldon being my favourites.
A fantastic debut, very well researched, tenderly written - a hugely satisfying read.