Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Lois-Ann Yamanaka's latest novel reaches new level of discomfort

By Ann M. Sato
Special to The Advertiser

"FATHER OF THE FOUR PASSAGES" Farrar, Straus, Giroux, hardback, $24

Lois-Ann Yamanaka has never been a comfortable writer.

Even when she was evoking relatively innocent high school days with hilarious precision in earlier novels such as "Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre" and "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers," readers’ laughter was often of the nervous kind. The kind that means, "Funny, yeah? . . . But not." The kind that asks, a little nervously, "Can she write that?"

But if previous books had us wriggling in our chairs at scenes that nudged too close to home, or flinching at characters with whom we identified a bit too closely, "Four Passages," her just-released new work, ascends to a whole new plane of discomfort.

Yamanaka’s protagonist, Sonia Kurisu, is a foul-mouthed, drinking and drugging Hilo-to-Kalihi-to-Vegas girl who is haunted by visions of the three foetuses she aborted as a teenager and barely able to care for her fourth child who, like Yamanaka’s own son, is autistic.

But, as with every character and situation in the book, there are depths within depths to Sonia. For every harsh thought — this is someone who has fantasies of murdering her child, or at least dumping him on her grandmother, just as she was dumped — and for every criminally self-destructive

action she takes, Sonia draws us into herself with her vulnerability, her survivor’s guts, her tender, God-loving heart.

She prays almost as often as she curses. She loathes what her son has done to her life, but she loves him, too, and, in the end, she learns from him, the character she comes to call "Little Priest." She blunders through the wreckage of her family, breaking whatever isn’t shattered already, and then she, and her children, and her God, become the balm that heals their wounds and knits them back together.

And it is from these true places where black and white exist alongside each other in jagged contradiction that the story gets it power.

From that, and from Sonia as Everywoman — you and me, as much as we may want to bury that idea deep. She is every mother who finds her fingers curled around her colicky baby’s neck, not knowing which is worse, to squeeze or to listen to one more moment of nerve-shredding squalling. She is every woman who cannot resist the lure of the wrong man, or the wrong bar, or the wrong job; who knows her weaknesses and can’t wait to wallow in them.

Sonia is attractive despite her sometimes horrifying faults, because, surrounded by people who court of a wide variety of powerful delusions, she is pitifully clear of sight. She is the Truth Speaker in her various households and, of course, her family loathes her for it. She speaks the truth of herself, and her friends try to talk her out of what she knows.

Yamanaka continues to grow as a writer; the construction of this novel is her most sophisticated yet. Her use of language, even of punctuation and typography, is nuanced and deliberate.

She delivers this challenging story in a layering of voices so skillfully rendered that we navigate without strain through Sonia’s self talk, the murmurs of the foetus-children, the badgering yak-yak-yak of Sonia’s mother and sister, the distanced poetry of the letters from her deserter father.

Too, she employs elements of mythical realism: Things happen that cannot happen, but so plausibly that we accept them and care not whether they exist outside of Sonia’s fevered imagination. (But, of course, they do.)

Some no doubt will comment on the lack of pidgin in this book (although Spam and rice have their roles, as do slipper-spankings and Island folkways). The best that I can say is that I didn’t notice; the dialogue seemed natural to me.

I was more bothered by the way that everyone in the book, even Sonia’s Baptist aunties, punctuated every sentence with f’s and d’s and s’s. Not because they were swearing, but because the characters were so relentlessly cruel to each other.

Still, it’s this relentlessness, this piling on of pain, that makes the mysterious ceremony of redemption that forms the novel’s end all the more welcome. In the end, there is a miracle. There is a God. There is a reason to have sat with Sonia despite the discomfort.

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