Amaterasu Takahashi moved to America to forget the decimation of her home town, Nagasaki. She lost her daughter and her grandson in the blast of pikadon.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding opens as a badly disfigured man turns up on Amaterasu’s doorstep claiming to be the grandson she thought long dead. If this really is Hideo can her grandson heal the pain and loss of the past? There are many secrets in Amaterasu’s history and with the help of letters from Hideo’s adopted father and the diaries of Amaterasu’s daughter, the family saga slowly unfolds.
This is a page-turning, tear-jerking story with quotations from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture adding an extra dimension to the tale that also sets the thematic tone for each chapter. A lot of thought and research has clearly gone into the creation of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding.
Though I found myself crying at the end of the novel, I remain uncertain of the overall effect. The way in which the plot unfolds, the many areas of Japanese life covered by the novel, are impressive and yet there is something that still niggles. There is a sense in which I feel I’m running through a list of central characteristics of Japanese culture and society.
I am well aware of how difficult it is to write about a culture that isn’t one’s own and I certainly would not wish to deter others from embarking on cross-cultural projects – perhaps this is exactly where literature should be trying to go – but there is this feeling of ticking cultural boxes and possibly too great a wish not to offend. However, I also think it would be too easy to decide the problem rests with writing about a different culture because A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is not reductive. Rather, I would suggest the problem may lie in the neatness of the novel: everything is carefully tied up, the message of hope (I’m not spoiling the plot by saying this) realistic but also too easy. I’m not left with enough to mull on after my tears have dried. I think what I’m really saying is that while I admire A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, I’m not its ideal reader. I don’t doubt this novel will hit all the bestseller lists and it deserves to do well, it’s just not for me.
Next week I’m reading The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah.