Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding: A Book Review

The premise has been used before, with a person thought killed in a war turning up on a relative's doorstep. In A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING, the arrival of a disfigured man claiming to be Amaterasu Takahashi's grandson opens the novel, but you just have to know if he is or isn't who he claims to be.

The potential grandson brings letters from a man whose significance in Mrs. Takahashi's life is slowly revealed, chapter by chapter. Coupled with snippets from a daughter's diary, the story builds as the novel's narrator revisits the months prior to the bombing as she blames herself for her daughter's death and wonders how she could not have found her grandson if he had lived through the bombing. As she comes closer to rejecting, or maybe accepting, the mystery man, she turns back time even further to expose her relationship with the novel's antagonist, and a complex relationship it is.

At times, the epistolary technique made it difficult to determine which character was telling the story as the narrator shifted from Mrs. Takahashi to her daughter to her nemesis. This is not a book to be read with distractions in the room.

The headings for each chapter are quotes from the reference work with the same name as the novel, a dictionary that does not just translate words but explains nuance and meaning. Sometimes the headings fit the theme of the chapter, sometimes you forget about them as the narrator reveals another secret. They do help immerse the reader in Japanese culture, however, and shape the way you perceive the characters.

Maybe the ending is a bit too contrived or too neat, but in general the novel is an entertaining, engaging read.

My copy was provided by Penguin Random House. In case you wondered how I managed to read a book before it is officially released. Oh, and Random House? The author's name is mis-spelled on the title page. Might want to correct that before releasing the book.

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