I was, however, very pleasantly surprised to find that this book was so much more than just another war story. Jennifer Cody Epstein has written a lovely exploration of the lives of a group of characters that spans the years leading up to World War II, a couple of key events that don't necessarily get a lot of coverage now, and then touching base again after the war is over.
The story opens in 1935 with a young couple who are just beginning a relationship. For Cameron Richards, Lacey Robertson is the girl who he is unusually comfortable with and, even at this early stage he is beginning to think that she may be the one girl for him. One of the other most significant loves of Cameron's life is his dream of flying, a dream that has helped cocoon him from a father who he has always disappointed.
The story then moves to Japan, to the home of an American architect named Anton Reynolds who has lived in Japan for many years along with his wife and son, Billy. At a dinner party, the family is entertaining a master builder named Kenji Kobayashi, his glamourous English educated wife Hana and their precocious daughter Yoshi. Billy has a new found passion for photography that his disapproving father is tolerating but not encouraging and he finds a willing model in Hana. His Japanese childhood and his photography will lead Billy back to Japan after the war is over, but as a man, Billy has a secret that threatens to destroy his life.
Each of these characters play a role in the story but the main focus is really on Yoshi, who either through a physical object, or emotionally or physically is connected to each of the other characters. If Yoshi is the main character, then the main event is the fire bombing of Tokyo during 1945 which destroyed vast swathes of the city, killing nearly 100,000 people in the process. Whilst we remember the dropping of the atomic bombs, and rightfully so, these fire bombing attacks are not something that I remember hearing very much about. I must give kudos to the author because these scenes are so well written. The fear that the characters feel, the despair as they watch people die painful deaths around them, the terror of not knowing if your loved ones are alive or not - I was so moved as I read these scenes.
The author very cleverly connects the various vignettes, ensuring that the reader is invested in the lives of most of the characters, no matter what their role in the story is. As the threads that tie each of the characters together are revealed, the reader is exposed to the cruelties of war - the atrocities, the strain on those who live daily with the threat of losing all they own including their life, the strain on those left behind wondering what has happened to their loved ones as well as to the secrets that we keep even from those we love. There was only one time where I felt like I had missed something as we jumped forward in time, when I wasn't quite sure of how Yoshi got from where we had last seen her to where she was.
As an exploration of a single event, of interconnected lives and of the price of war, this is an excellent read which I highly recommend. Now I am off to request The Painter of Shanghai, the author's debut novel. If it is anything like this, then I am expecting to really enjoy that one too.
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A lush, exquisitely-rendered meditation on war,The God of Heavenly Punishment tells the story of several families, American and Japanese, their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses, and how they are all connected by one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.
In 1935, Yoshi Kobayashi is the six-year-old daughter of a sophisticated, iconoclastic mother and an unread, nationalistic father. Years later, as a teen in Manchuria, she witnesses, first-hand, the harsh realities Japan’s expansionist dreams—even as she discovers the first blush of love. During the worst days of the war in Tokyo, Yoshi balances school work with ration lines—even while caring for her mother whose rebellious spirit has been brutally broken by the men who wage war. Then, one March night, Yoshi’s world is finally consumed by flame when hundreds of American B-29’s scorch the night sky, showering napalm down upon her city. Left alone among the ruins, Yoshi’s fate will now depend on her will to live and the unlikely intersections with three men whom she’d have once considered “enemies”: a downed American bomber pilot, a Hungarian-born architect, and an Occupying Forces intelligence officer with his own damning secret.
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is about vastly different nations who are tied inextricably to one another, first in enmity and then alliance. It’s a story of physical lust and military power; of wartime atrocity and small acts of human kindness. It is a sweeping tale about the redemptive power of forgiveness even in the face of devastating acts of violence.