Isabel Allende made her name writing sweeping sagas about her native Chile and in The Japanese Lover she moves the location (despite the title) to her adopted homeland of the United States. I was attracted to the book because of its link to Japanese American internment, a topic that I read a lot about as well as basing my debut novel around it. Unfortunately when Allende deals with internment and the other political topics dealt with in her novel she switches to a somewhat pedantic information dumps. That is unfortunate because the central concept of the novel is very intriguing. It is about Irina Bazili, a Moldovan migrant who begins working at a nursing home popular with the wealthy liberals of San Francisco. There she comes to the attention of Alma Belasco, who had immigrated from Poland in 1939. Alma wants Irina to write down her life story and sort her papers and novel then begins to switch between earlier decades of Alma's life and the contemporary setting in the nursing home. Through this method Allende gives a slow reveal of Alma's actual life story, as her character functions as a sort of unreliable narrator, although the novel is told from a third person point of view.
There are many subplots and a vast array of characters to deal with and the importance of the titular Japanese lover only becomes apparent through the slow reveal. Ichimei Fukuda was the son of the Japanese American gardener of Alma's wealthy San Francisco relatives. Their burgeoning friendship is interrupted by the internment of Pacific Coast Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Although I am not sure that Allende appreciates that it was just Pacific Coast residents as her historical information dumps on internment suggest that she is a little hazy about the details.
As the novel is written in the form of a slow reveal it is difficult to say much more about the plot, but there are many twists and turns to keep the reader busy. Possibly there are too many twists and turns with the result that some characters are very much under developed. Overall the concept behind the novel is intriguing, but the implementation of the concept left something to be desired.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved