A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
Jackie Copleton’s debut novel, inspired by her time living in Nagasaki, shines with a soft, poetic and sensitive light. Focusing on the long-lasting physical and emotional trauma of August 9th, 1945, it is also a heartbreaking story of love, and the relationship between a mother and a daughter.
Even the kindness of the half-light could not hide his disfigurement. The man stood on my doorstep hunched against the chill of a winter morning. Despite the scarring, I could tell he was Japanese, in his forties or fifties. I had seen such burns before, blacker versions, in another life.
Several decades after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, claiming the lives of her daughter and grandson, Amaterasu Takahashi comes face to face with a ghost from her past: a man scarred beyond recognition by the flames of that day. He claims to be her lost grandson, Hideo. As Amaterasu unravels the mystery of the past through letters from the doctor who adopted Hideo after the war, and the diary of her lost daughter Yuko, a complex web of lies, betrayal, passion and sacrifice emerges. Is Hideo her grandson, or is he an imposter?
This was not the ending I wanted for any of us. Here was another monster raised from the rubble of Nagasaki. I did not believe him.
Amaterasu, named after the primary god in Japanese mythology, is a difficult character. Her own desires blind her to the wishes of her daughter, and her love for her daughter makes her take steps to protect her that can, at times, appear extreme. As the past and the present interact with each other, the steady revelation of secrets, complicated relationships between the cast of characters, and the permeating sorrow and sadness make this a very compelling read: I could not put it down, even when the images of the destruction became unbearable.
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.
I think this novel’s greatest strength is its attention to detail. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture, giving insight into the characters’ feelings, the expectations of their society, and the motivations for their actions. It felt as though it was a Japanese novel that had been translated into English; even though it has been written by a foreigner, it is authentic and sincere, and it gives a balanced view of the tragic events of that day. Copleton refrains from politicizing the motivations behind dropping the bomb, choosing instead to focus on the lasting effects of that choice on ordinary Japanese citizens, their children, their families and their psychology. She also delves into the psychological effects incurred by committing atrocities during the war. I found that very interesting as well, as the lines between good and evil become blurred by duty, the question of free will, and the terror of war.
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 an agony of noise and the silence that followed.
Primarily, this is a war story about the women affected by it. The men play crucial but background roles, while the women take the foreground. From abalone divers to geishas, nurses and artists, Copleton explores the many functions women play in Japanese society. She takes us into the intimate spaces of the women-only bath-house, where, unclothed and made equal by the stripping away of their assumed daily identities, the women can be their truest selves. While depicting them as sex workers, mothers and daughters, she also shows their strength of character and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her family. The juxtaposition of the violence of war with the passion of the love story highlights the obstacles that they face. Copleton has masterfully created a layered and complicated, yet strikingly beautiful picture of Japanese life and love before, during and after the war.
I wish I could find the words to describe the feeling of that brief connection. Maybe no word exists for it but without the word how will I remember my reaction other than to repeat the spike of desire again and again until my body becomes its own dictionary?
It can be very difficult to give an authentic portrayal of a culture that is not your own. The nuances and ingrained cultural rules and behaviors are difficult to emulate. Copleton’s experience living in Nagasaki, and her evidently extensive research, have created a novel that feels both accurate as well as artistically sound. The descriptions ring with colour and music, and her characters are vivid and interesting. Their relationships ebb and flow with the forces of history and destruction. This novel is at times difficult to read. The violence and sorrow hit me at my core; but it is also impossible to stop reading. It is a strong reminder that such a catastrophe should never, ever, happen again.