Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bookish Thoughts: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Even the kindness of the half-light could not hide his disfigurement. ~ Opening of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding


A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
Penguin Books, 2015
Fiction; 304 pgs

Amaterasu Takahashi has gone through the motions of living for much of the past forty years. She drinks too much, perhaps, but she has settled into a quiet existence. With that knock on the door and the man before her claiming to be the grandson killed in the atomic bombing, or pikadon, of Nagasaki, Ama refuses to believe it possible. After she shuts the door, she opens the letters he brought her and begins to read, forcing herself to relive the past she has worked so hard to forget. Soon she is digging the journals of her deceased daughter out of the closet and begins to read those as well. The past comes flooding back--not only of the events surrounding the attack on Nagasaki, but also of Ama's own childhood.

Told in a non-linear fashion, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is Ama's reflection on the past via letters, her daughter's journal, and her own memories. The reader learns of Ama's secrets and biggest regrets, about the role they played in her later actions, about her daughter's affair, and the fallout of that.

The relationship between Ama and her daughter, Yuko, was a complicated one, especially after Yuko began sneaking out. Yuko was bored with her life and falling in love was the best thing that had happened to her. Her parents were furious, not just because of her sneaking around, but with whom she had chosen to sneak around with. Their very family reputation was at stake--but it was really more than that. Much more than Yuko would ever know. Ama's own story is very different from her daughter's in many respects, but it is one she never talked about--of poverty and hostess bars--and it colored her reactions and behavior toward her daughter during those final years of her daughter's life. Ama had only wanted to protect her daughter, to save her, but she wonders now if she had made a mistake.

What stands out in the novel is the devastating impact of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki. It was the second of its kind to hit the country of Japan, and it's impact was horrific and long lasting. Ama had been scheduled to meet her daughter at a church in the city, but had been running late. Her daughter's body was never found, but her death a foregone conclusion. Ama and her husband were sure their grandson, Hideo, had been killed too. Ama had dropped him off at school that same morning. They had searched for both Hideo and Yuko for weeks after, finding no evidence of their survival.

Each chapter begins with an English word, followed by the Japanese translation and a definition in relation to the Japanese culture. It is a nice touch, adding more nuance to the story being told.

I liked this novel on many levels. It is a sad story to say the least, one of loss and grief, of regrets and secrets kept. It is also the story of forgiving oneself and finding peace with the past. Jackie Copleton's beautiful writing drew me in, and made me feel like I was part of the story, seeing everything as it unfolded and came together.

I had never heard such a noise before. It felt as if the world's heart had exploded. Some would later describe it as a bang, but this was more than a door slamming on its hinges, or an oil truck thudding into a car. There can be no word for what we heard that day. There must never be. To give this sound a name might mean it could happen again. What word can capture the roar of every thunderstorm you might have heard, every avalanche and volcano and tsunami that you might have seen tear across the land, every city consumed by flames and waves and winds? Never find the language for such agony of noise and the silence that followed. ~ Excerpt from A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, page 23

To learn more about Jackie Copleton and her books, please visit the author's website. You can also find the author on Facebook and Twitter.

Source: E-copy from publisher via the First to Read Program for an honest review.

© 2015, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

16 comments:

  1. This sounds like a good one, Wendy. The setting and the premise sounds intriguing, too. Will be adding this to my wishlist. :)

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    1. Melody - It was really good. I have read a bit about Hiroshima but never really Nagasaki, and was drawn to this book for that reason. I hope you do like this one if you give it a try.

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  2. I love the cover, and the quote is so moving. I've been interested in this one, but I'm not sure I'm up to dealing with the horror and grief at the moment. It is on my list for later.

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    1. Jenclair - Maybe not right now. After the holidays. :-) It is a hopeful story in its own way, but very sad. I really like that quote too. I hope nothing like that happens again.

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  3. I love stories told in that manner - this sounds really good to me!

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    1. Kathy - I do too. The only difference with this one is that everything kind of flows into each other with no clear cut separation, which I think some might find off-putting. It didn't bother me though.

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  4. I like that while this is a sad story there's a positive element and the excerpts sound really lovely. The idea of the chapter headings with one English word is interesting. This is so different from my usual reading but it definitely appeals to me.

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    1. Katherine - I liked that about it too. It covered several rather heavy story lines, but the thread of hope was just perfect. I thought the chapter headings she used were very well done. If you do give this one a try, I hope you will like it.

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  5. A new story for me and although sad I think one well worth reading.

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    1. Mystica - Oh, yes, this one is well worth reading. I hope you get the chance!

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  6. Hm interesting. I especially am fascinated with every chapter beginning with an english word, wondering what their significance is in the story!

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    1. Jillian - It was a very nice touch, I thought.

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  7. Sounds like a very beautiful book! Lately, I have been craving some Japanese fiction and have been looking for a few books to read. Will keep this in mind.

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    1. Athira - It is! I enjoy reading books about cultures other than my own, about other countries. I definitely recommend this one .

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  8. Sounds like a pretty powerful story. I'll have to put this on my list of ones to read when I'm in a more somber book mood.
    Great review!
    ~Litha Nelle

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    1. Litha Nelle - Thank you! It was a good one. Definitely better when you are looking for a more serious read though.

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