Wednesday, March 02, 2011
THE BOOK REVIEW CLUB
With the publication of Chang Rae Lee's fourth book SURVIVAL, I couldn't help but be reminded of his second book A GESTURE LIFE, which for me was the kind of book you pick up remaindered or at library sale and force on friends.
Although his first novel A NATIVE SPEAKER, was excellent and won many awards, this one is my favorite. I learned about several things I was not aware of before reading it besides being moved and admiring of the story and the graceful writing.
Hata is a retired Japanese businessman (a medical supplier) who lives in a suburban New York town where he is respected as a community leader for his polite, respectful ways.
But underneath this facade, he has been unable to form many bonds, including one with his daughter who has run away. After Hata nearly burns down his house and is hospitalized, his thoughts are forced back to his years in the Japanese army during the second world war. It is here, through brilliant flashbacks (yes, they can work when done well) that we learn the reasons for his aloofness.
During World War II, Korean women were forced to serve as "comfort women," satisfying the sexual needs of the Japanese soldiers to ensure high morale. A tragic incident involving a comfort woman forever shapes the life of Franklin "Doc" Hata.
In the jungles of Burma, Hata, an Army medic, made the mistake of falling in love with a comfort woman he calls "K," who was also the object of desire of a superior officer's. Hata, who was born Korean but adopted by a Japanese family (another event that distanced him), tries to protect K, and this attempt goes badly, influencing the rest of his life. He believes that the only way to protect himself from further tragedies is by an aloof politeness and leaving Asia behind.
It is only when Hata comes to term with what happened during the war and is able to see his life "as a gesture life" one filled with doing polite, if uninvolved acts, that he begins to become whole. This is a beautifully written and constructed book. I can think of very few books that have stayed with me more.
For more reviews, find your way to Barrie Summy's blog.