When I saw that A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton was being compared to Memoir of A Geisha and The Piano Teacher, I knew I had to find out more about it because I loved both of those novels. When I read the publisher’s brief description, I was even more intrigued. This is a novel that is largely historical, although parts of it are from the near past. What happened to Nagasaki during World War II has bothered me a lot ever since I was a child. Couldn’t we have found another way to end that conflict is what has haunted me – a way that didn’t open the door to such a devastating nuclear “option”?
So was I torturing myself to want to read about what became of the survivors of Nagasaki? I don’t think so…just my eternal curiosity about other cultures at work…always wanting to learn more. This novel is about the radical turns life can take with no warning, a story about what makes a family, a story about secrets and survival, and a story about hope and redemption. If you like historical fiction, I think A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a novel you need to at least know about and I hope it’s one you’ll want to read.
The widow Amaterasu “Ama” Takahashi has lived a fairly isolated life in Philadelphia ever since her husband passed away, until she opens her door one day to find a man standing there. This stranger tells her something startling – something she doesn’t want to even think about much less believe. Ama cannot believe he is real and he might not be. She would never have come to America if she had thought there was any chance he might still be alive. Now here she is near the end of her life, and this man says he is her long-lost, presumed dead grandson and he says he has evidence. How is that even possible? Her daughter, Yuko, and her small grandson both perished when the Americans dropped their doomsday bomb on Nagasaki at the end of World War II, almost 40 years ago. The search for them was exhaustive. Surely this is some kind of scam to take advantage of an elderly woman, or is it?
“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.”
“’This must be hard to take in. You might need some time.’
‘Please leave. I want you to go.’
The man nodded, put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a business card…He offered me the card but I didn’t take it. He reached again in his pocket and this time produced a letter, crumpled by age or the journey undertaken. ‘This will help explain why I’m here today, why it’s taken me so long to find you’ I did not move and the envelope and card trembled in his grip. ‘Please, you will find the contents difficult, but helpful.’
Seconds passed before I took both from him.”
The man’s evidence? Letters containing secrets Ama has refused to even think about all these years that she’s been in America. Why would someone want to torture her with these long buried secrets? How can she cope with things she’s refused to even look at for so long? Why can’t she just be left alone to live out her last days in peace?
And so Ama and we, as readers, are taken back to World War II Nagasaki, to a time when the people of Japan rallied around their emperor to fight for their country. They believed the fight was just because they were told it was just, and they sacrificed everything and in some cases everyone they knew for that fight.
Ama and her husband had a young headstrong, modern daughter, Yuko, who they had always tried to protect from the harsh world. Yuko though had big dreams and was determined to do things her own way – not in the hidebound traditional way her parents had done. Some things are the same all over the world in every generation, it seems.
Possibly because she had been so sheltered and was trying so hard to be a modern girl, Yuko believed a married man, Dr. Jumei Sato, who said his marriage was over, that he loved her and that he wanted to marry her. So she began a secret affair with him. And then Yuko got pregnant and Dr. Sato promptly abandoned her. Loss of face was not just a disgrace in Japan but so much worse. People who felt they had lost face quite often committed suicide. Luckily Yuko was not one of those people and, luckily, her parents did their best to protect her from the harsh judgments of those around them even though it meant they lost face even more.
Ama and her husband, Kenzo, loved their little grandson, Hideo, with all their hearts. He was an innocent child filled with wonder at the world and they were determined to give him the best life possible. Yuko gradually began to pull her life back together, nursing returning injured soldiers. War was causing ever increasing hardships for everyone but rumors were circulating that it couldn’t last much longer – Japan was running out of the resources to keep it going.
August 9, 1945 dawned like every other day. And then pikadon, when the atomic bomb is dropped and Nagasaki became hell on earth. Ama was to meet Yuko in the local cathedral that morning after dropping Hideo off at school. She had almost taken him with her instead because she was running late, but she didn’t. That decision has haunted her ever since. Neither Yuko’s nor Hideo’s bodies were ever found, despite Ama and Kenzo frantically searching long after hope was lost. Could Hideo have survived without them knowing?
“Hideo is seven years old, dressed in his school uniform, his hair brushed forward on his forehead. He holds my hand as we walk down the garden path. We spot a praying mantis on the bird table. He asks if he can keep the insect as a pet. I tell him no. We walk to school and he waves to me from the gates. That is Hideo Watanabe. That was how I chose to remember him…I had mourned Hideo too many years to believe him resurrected.”
Ama is a very complex person, one who plays everything very close to the vest. She is a character who grew on me – not one I found to be immediately likeable because I was looking at her from an American perspective. As she told her backstory, I began to understand more and more how she became the overly cautious, and possibly slightly paranoid, person she is when the story opens. Kenzo was her rock and I found him instantly likeable. I’m not going to talk about Yuko or Hideo as a child because you need to discover them for yourself. I’m also not going to talk about the grown man who says he’s Hideo, to avoid spoilers.
Jackie Copleton lived and taught in Nagasaki. Her experiences in Japan, and the things she learned there about what Nagasaki went through at the end of World War II, bring a wonderful depth to A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding. I was spellbound by this novel and could not stop reading. I also went on an emotional rollercoaster ride. War is hell for innocent citizens, no matter the country, and they are the ones who always seem to pay the highest price. Ms. Copleton does not spare our feelings or soften what happened to the people of Nagasaki, and I applaud her for that. She also provides her historical research sources in case you want to learn more. Bottom Line: I’m recommending A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding. Does it intrigue you too?
Can’t wait to read it? A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below. Just click the link and enjoy!
I’d love to get your comments on A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, Jackie Copleton, and/or this review.