Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, brings to life a collection of characters that will stay with you long after you close the book. Switching between 1986 and the war-torn years of the 1940s, this is the story of Henry Lee and the relationships in his life.

As the story opens, Henry has recently lost his wife. Finding himself at loose ends he happens by a hotel from his youth where items stored by Japanese Americans who were interred during World War II have been discovered. This is the trigger that sends Henry back in time to when he was 12-years-old and fell in love with a Japanese girl who was sent away.

Searching through the items looking for a trace of the girl who once figured so prominently in his life has him reflecting on those times and the changes that happened in him and the bonds that were such a huge part of his life.

His father, who wants so much for his son to be American, and yet holds to his memories of and conflicts from his life in China; Henry’s parents who refuse to let him speak in their native tongue, yet cannot understand when he tries to speak English to them; Sheldon, the black jazz musician who understands Henry in ways his family never could and introduces him to the music scene of 1940s Seattle; Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria worker at the white school where Henry is “scholarshipped” who empathizes with young Henry and offers him help when he needs it most; Henry’s son Marty who learns about his father’s life along with us, and begins to see his father as a person besides being his parent--all these relationships help form Henry into the man we see in 1986.

But most important is his relationship with Keiko Okabe. The only other Asian student at the school Henry is forced to attend, Keiko becomes first his ally, then his friend, then his true love. She is the motivation behind Henry’s taking his first steps into adulthood. Watching the fear and bigotry as it races through the Japanese community, forcing his friend and her family to make unreasonably difficult choices to prove their loyalty, Henry must decide where he stands.

This book touched me deeply. I wept, laughed, and found myself wishing I too could spend time with Henry. This is a heart wrenching period in history, and reading about it on such a personal level was profoundly moving. I highly recommend Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It is a well titled book, and I hope it is not the last we hear from Mr. Ford.

No comments:

Post a Comment