The following reviews initially appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.
THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE, Lynne Kutsukake, Doubleday
This touching and thought-provoking debut novel follows the storylines of several Japanese, Japanese-American, and Japanese-Canadian characters living—and sometimes barely surviving—in Japan during the post-Word War II American occupation. The stories weave together to create a wide-ranging, detailed portrait of the civilian Japanese experience before, during, and after the war.
Central to the story is General Douglas MacArthur. As one character observes, MacArthur seems almost to replace the emperor in the eyes of the Japanese people. In his role as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, MacArthur invites the Japanese to write him letters, and they respond in astounding numbers.
Pervading the novel is a constant sense of dislocation. Aya, a Canadian schoolgirl whose mother died while the family was interned, has been “repatriated” to Japan with her father but speaks virtually no Japanese. Corporal Yoshitaka “Matt” Matsumoto is a second-generation American who joined the army from an internment camp to prove his loyalty, and, now part of the occupation force, uses his rusty language skills to translate those letters to MacArthur. Matt’s coworker and fellow American citizen Nancy Nogami was visiting relatives in Japan in December 1941, and so was never allowed to return home. For the native Japanese, the social and cultural dislocation they face in their occupied country is seismic and stark.
This seismic shift in culture is most clearly illustrated through the stories of Fumi, who gradually befriends Aya, and Fumi’s sister Sumiko, who naively accepts employment at a dancehall, which immediately turns into indentured servitude. When Sumiko can no longer return home, Fumi and Aya write a letter to MacArthur to beg for his help in finding her.
Kutsukake has created a nuanced, empathetic but unsentimental story that considers what it means to rebuild an identity, both as an individual and as a nation.
THE RISEN: A NOVEL OF SPARTACUS, David Anthony Durham, Doubleday
In David Anthony Durham’s novels of ancient Rome, Rome plays the villain. Pride of Carthage mapped Hannibal’s attempt to overthrow that seat of world power, and now The Risen traces the great slave uprising lead by the gladiator Spartacus. Credit the power of Durham’s storytelling that it doesn’t matter that readers already know the outcome of both ill-fated campaigns; the journey to get there is absolutely worth the trip.
Durham’s approach to the story is both inventive and well-suited to the task. He’s broken the book into three sections, each made up of chapters told from the point of view of the same set of characters. Thus, readers get to know and follow a handful of characters through the shifting tides of the story, including a hapless Roman soldier, an old woman whose early servitude taught her routes up and down the length of Italy, a Greek medic, a Roman general’s slave scribe, several of Spartacus’s most trusted lieutenants, and Spartacus himself.
Spartacus is a born leader, able to think both strategically and tactically, helped also by a priestess’s visions of triumph. The gladiators’ escape, early sorties, and first two engagements with the Roman armies sent against them are thrilling in their planning and execution. Spartacus takes the long view of his eventual objectives, though not everyone in his expansive following agrees with his plans.
Halfway through the book, the tide starts to turn against The Risen, slowly at first with small setbacks, but soon in wave after wave of bad luck, betrayal, and strategic miscalculations. As one character says, Spartacus was so strong he could only be brought down through betrayal, but it may be that Spartacus simply didn’t understand that, however much Rome was hated, an army of slaves could never command the respect necessary to gain true allies.
NOT ALL BASTARDS ARE FROM VIENNA, Andrea Molesini, translated by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh, Grove Press
This restrained, beautifully written debut novel looks at war from the microcosm of a single location, that of a villa in the small Italian town of Refrontolo, just north of Venice, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Caporetto. It is November 1917, and the German/Austro-Hungarian armies are pressing their advantage to drive deeper into Italy. The novel opens as a contingent of Germans commandeers the villa of the Spada family for the officers’ use, and billets the infantry in the almost-deserted village. The adult narrator, Paolo Spada, looks back on the story through the eyes of his 17-year-old self, describing events with just the right mix of understanding, naiveté, and desire for grown-up adventure that a boy on the cusp of manhood would have in that situation.
Engaging characters populate the Spada household: strong-willed grandmother Nancy; contrary, charming grandfather Gugliemo; fiercely loyal housekeeper Teresa; beautiful, eccentric neighbor Giulia; intelligence-officer-cum-house-steward Renato; and, at the center, Paolo’s intelligent, resourceful aunt Donna Maria. Paolo observes the chastely tender relationship that grows between Maria and the Viennese major in charge of the billeted army, Baron Von Feilitzsch. These two aristocrats with similar educations and cultural influences share far more in common than does the monied family with the local peasants, but war both divides and unites along national boundaries. Maria and the Baron are the last products of old empires that will not survive the war. As many in the family are drawn into helping Renato’s insurgency missions, those boundaries are fully drawn.
Molesini’s language is simple and lovely, and his story draws the reader in close to the family. He notes that this novel was inspired by Maria Spada’s privately published Diary of Invasion; he has written a book that is equal to such a remarkable woman.