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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

'Plum Wine' seeps under Japan's facade

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

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Beautiful and painful in equal measure, this novel reminded me of Sara Backer's "American Fuji" the first selection of the now-defunct Advertiser Book Club back in 2002 in its exploration of the Japanese character and the uneasy situation of an American in Japan, struggling for understanding beyond the polite smiles and stilted phrases. The setting, however, is not "American Fuji's" contemporary Japan, but a Tokyo women's university in the 1960s, when a female college professor was sufficiently an oddity in Japan without also being an American.

The book opens on a mystery: A young English teacher, Barbara Jefferson, is grieving the loss of her closest her only Japanese friend when she is informed that the dead woman has left her a bequest, a chest in which are stored bottles of homemade umeshu, plum wine. There is more to the gift, though Barbara will be hard-challenged to fully understand it: Each of the bottles is wrapped in the pages of a year-end journal kept by her dead friend and earlier members of her family.

Why did Nakamoto Michiko-san leave such a thing to Barbara and not someone who could read the kanji calligraphy? Is there a message here? And when had Michiko-san made this decision had she a premonition of her death, which has been explained to Barbara as "heartstroke"?

The gift is left with "best wishes for your discovery of Japan." And discovery there is for Barbara: that Michiko was hikabusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; that the man who helps her interpret Michiko-san's manuscripts is both more and less than he seems; that the past is always with us and love can kill as easily as hate — or indifference.

As a writer, Davis-Gardner has a light hand, leaving the reader to feel as though they are living the story, unconscious of the artistry involved in the telling. Her appealing characters are never facile: the students who are a window (though one that is often quickly shut) into Japanese thinking; the Shakespeare-quoting professor who insists on performing "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; the neighbors and others who help the American in their midst, but also watch her for faux pas.

Running through "Plum Wine" is the legend of the fox-woman, an alluring, elusive character in Japanese mythology. She leaves an indelible impression on those whose lives she touches, but she can never be domesticated. Her lovers end alone, as do the lovers in this piquant novel.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are known as hibakusha. The word was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.