Book: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 336 pages | Price: Rs 550
At her best, Chilean author Isabel Allende’s stories read like exquisite fairytales, dexterously combining ornate storytelling with an element of magic realism. Little of that magic, however, is present in her new novel, The Japanese Lover, which tells the story of two women — the elderly Jewish Alma Belasco, who as a child escaped to the USA prior to the German invasion of Poland, and Irina Bazili, a young immigrant from Moldova, who ultimately ends up looking after Alma at Lark House, a home for the elderly. As Bazili forges a friendship with Alma’s grandson, Seth, they discover the story of Alma’s affair with Ichimei Fukuda through flashbacks and letters; at the same time, Seth and Irina’s love begins to grow.
A story spanning decades and continents is not easy to tell, but a large cast of characters, each with their own back story, further complicates matters. Yet no character, including the main protagonist, manages to hold our undivided attention. Add to that the many social issues and historical events that the author tries to cram into the book and what one gets is 336 pages of arms-length description and reportage. From the Warsaw ghetto, to Auschwitz and Japanese internment camps to sex slavery and child pornography; Mexican back-alley abortions, assisted suicide, amnesia and racism to immigration and AIDS — there is hardly an issue that the author has not touched upon in the book.
But in the absence of a tight plotline and strong characters, the novel falls flat, reading in parts like a lesson in 20th century history. Allende’s rich, poignant storytelling comes alive only in the corridors of the Lark House, where she captures something real and thoughtful about the end of life through interactions and conversations between the aged (“They advanced step by step towards the end, some more quickly than others, and lost everything along the way, for we cannot take anything with us to the other side of death”). But even these parts are few, and fleeting, and not nearly enough to make up for the uninspired storytelling.