Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 27th 2014
Genres: Cultural, Fiction, Historical, Literary
How has he not had it drummed into him that brats don’t whine? We don’t plead. We don’t need. We require nothing. Not even real roots. We’re air ferns.
In Sarah Bird’s new novel Above the East China Sea the island of Okinawa is the centerpiece of a multi-generational drama that plays out during World War II and modern times. Tamiko is a native of the island in the 1940s when it is considered an outpost of Japan. She wants only to be like her older sister, Hatsuko, who attends the Princess Lily high school, meaning she has a chance at a life beyond being a maid or shop clerk but can move into the lower rungs of Japanese society. Luz is her contemporary counterpart, living on the island because her mother is stationed there. As a military brat she feels no ties to anyone or anything—a trait compounded by the fact that her sister Codie was recently killed in Afghanistan. Losing this only tie to love has hardened her to the point of foolish risks and being utterly closed off to people of any kind. Bird takes these two young girls and by blending the past and the present pulls the reader into a story of love, war, heritage, and devotion.
Above the East China Sea is an exploration of themes well beyond the surface plot (of which there is plenty). Its portrayal of military life for dependents is painful in its sense of isolation and disconnection. There are no roots or sustained relationships possible for Luz with a mother who is devoted to her job and seems to expect her daughter to be a little soldier herself. She is left to navigate not only her surroundings but her emotions- especially those about Codie. Even then Luz’s mother is unable to communicate with her as to what really happened and to any grief she must be feeling at the loss of one of her children. Instead, without telling Luz where she is going she volunteers for a temporary duty assignment away from the island.
Bird plays the mysticism and all-consuming devotion of Tamiko and her family to the glorious Emperor’s war against the pragmatic and detached mindset of Luz to great effect. For Tamiko, the highest honor in her life will be to serve the Japanese cause as a student nurse when the Japanese begin streaming into Okinawa. She and all her island compatriots believe they are a critical part of the war effort and will be rewarded for their faithfulness. It is only as the attacks on the island begin in earnest and she is separated from her beloved sister that the truth becomes clear.
The novel is parsed out into the four days of Obon—the annual Buddhist custom of honoring one’s ancestors. It is believed to be a time when the spirit world is open to the living world and provides the framework for the journey of Luz and Tamiko. Although separated by generations they need each other to complete this stage of their life (and death). Bird gives us two girls who differ so greatly in their outlook on life: Tamiko with all her sense of duty towards family and country and Luz with no ties, no beliefs, and no desire to know her family or its history. It is only as East Sea progresses that Bird peels away the layers between the two to show the similarities that will ultimately allow them to merge and the past to be released.
Above the East China Sea is a stunning blend of hard and soft, reality and spirituality. It looks at the life of a culture on an island that was almost destroyed by war and continues to function as a military base, but is populated by a people who own their past and their true heritage. The novel is distressing and redemptive. Bird doesn’t pull any punches about the brutality of the Japanese soldiers towards the Okinawans, especially the women, nor does she soften the hardness of military life. It is this honesty that imbues the novel with elemental truths—the kind of reading that lingers long after the last page.
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