Even before you open this book, the cover hints at the magic inside. There is a couple on the cover, a man in a Western-style suit under a Western-style umbrella, and a girl under a Japanese parasol turning away from the man. Coupled with the delicate gold embossing, it is clear that the story of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford,Â will go right to your heart. And it does. The main theme of the story is the Japanese Internment in America towards the end of World War II. But it is not a story about the hardship or the suspicion of the times, instead it is about the surreal nature of the changes as seen through the eyes of a couple of kids whose friendship is built on their “different-ness” to their surrounds, the same differences that eventually send them apart.
Henry Lee, the main character, is a widower in 1986 whose memories of the Internment are brought back to him when a landmark of his childhood, the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s Japantown, is reopened and treasures stored there by the evacuated Japanese are unearthed after 40-plus years underground. In the Panama are Henry’s deepest secrets of a time he had tried to forget. The story is interleaved with his memory of 1942 when his best friend, Keiko, is sent with her family to a Japanese resettlement camp in Idaho – many hours travel from Seattle, but hours that Henry would be willing to sacrifice if he can share time with Keiko.
As well, the Bitter and Sweet theme is carried along by Henry’s memory of his father, who as a fiercely nationalistic Chinese expatriate, cannot stand the thought that his son would fraternise with the Japanese. Further, he would go so far as to disown Henry and send him to China if he could. In Henry’s current day, 1986, he can see his relationship with his own son has been coloured and shaped by his unhappy childhood and he takes the opportunity afforded by the revival of the Panama Hotel as a chance for change.
All along in the book, I was amazed at the attention to detail of life in Seattle’s international districts, the Japanese area and the Chinese area, which are so strongly segregated. The author has given Henry the gift of being almost blind to the colour difference between whites and blacks, but in exchange the distinction between Asian races is unmistakeable. As well, there is a great love of the Seattle jazz scene woven into the thread of the book, exploring its rise through the war years – despite blackouts and rationing.
In all, this book is a beautifully crafted historical piece, poignant and thought provoking. What would be the outcome if the Japanese Internment was tried today in Western societies? If anything, that is the question that I am left with after reading the novel.
Available now: Allen & Unwin RRP$27.99