I received The Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton for free through Goodreads Giveaways.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I really wanted to love it, but the book fell a bit short. I would have given it 3.5 stars.
My favourite thing about this book was how Copleton began each chapter with a relevant Japanese-to-English translation of a uniquely Japanese word (i.e. an equivalent word does not exist – at least not in any of the languages I speak). The word is accompanied by an in-depth definition that also proves to be relevant to the chapter at hand. The words were chosen with obvious care such that they not only provide that relevant connection, but they also allow readers with limited knowledge of Japanese culture and history a small window into Japan’s often complex social intricacies. In this way, Copleton’s book truly is a dictionary of mutual understanding.
My knowledge of Japanese culture is rather limited so I cannot attest to the novel’s accuracy therein, but the picture Copleton paints is rich and I could easily imagine walking amid blossoming trees in pre-WWII Nagasaki. I could imagine the chaos in the aftermath of the pikadon (the atomic bomb) and the devastation that too many families had to endure, not only in the days and months following the ordeal, but also as a result of the long-lasting effects of such intense radiation.
Amaterasu is our protagonist, and while many others seem to have loved her, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I disliked her, but she fell rather flat for me. She tells the story of her daughter, Yuko, and grandson, Hideo, both of whom ostensibly perished in the pikadon. Jomei Sato is Amaterasu’s villain, but isn’t quite ours. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a good man; Sato’s actions typically range from morally questionable to downright bad. But Amaterasu’s relationship with Sato as a very young woman does, however, colour her later opinions of and actions toward him. Sato did behave badly toward her in her youth, but not as badly as Amaterasu would have us believe given the circumstances. I would argue that his behaviour toward naïve Yuko was actually far worse given the social risk to her (I won’t elaborate because I hate spoilers!). Although Sato may never have been able to make proper amends to either woman, his actions vis-à-vis Hideo redeem him enough in my eyes as to warrant at least a modicum of forgiveness which Amaterasu cannot seem to give.
Copleton has created a set of characters who, like the rest of us, live in shades of gray. With the rare exception (possibly not even then), we are none of us heroes or villains, but rather we fall somewhere along the gradient between the two. Amaterasu, Sato, and Yuko are no exception. In that regard, these characters were thus drawn beautifully. The characters all lack passion, however. They speak of careers, loves, family, dreams, but none of it seems very passionate. They all have this list of things they say they care about, but I never felt any of it.
Throughout the first two-thirds or so of the story, Amaterasu hints ad nauseam that her past is shameful and that she has a history with Sato she would rather keep secret. From the first hint, the reader is able to deduce how the entire story will go with perhaps the exception of the reason Yuko is at the cathedral in the first place at the time of the pikadon (and even then, even if the reader does not discover the reason prior to the reveal, he/she will not be surprised). The book, like Amaterasu’s history, is shrouded in mystery, but unlike Yuko, and despite Copleton’s intentions, we are in on the secret, and I found that to be extremely disappointing.
Many reviewers have stated that they found themselves in tears while reading this novel, and I find that surprising. I am a literary crybaby and become very emotionally invested in my characters (I said what I mean: they become mine). I found that I was happy with the way the novel ended with Hideo and Amaterasu, but I never even felt a sniffle or a tear threatening to fall. The ultimate tragedy of the bomb is, naturally, horrendous and as a human being, it hurts me that we are capable of inflicting such pain on each other, but this novel did nothing for me emotionally. When the book’s own cover claims that it is “heartrending”, “heart-wrenching”, “mesmerizing”, and “extraordinary”, it sets up high expectations. And mine weren’t met. Was it worth the read? Yes, but for the historical and socio-cultural knowledge, not for the storyline or the rather dull characters.