It’s a quiet story that nonetheless packs an emotional punch. I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath (figuratively speaking) until the last chapter, when we heard from the father. In a NYTimes review, Michiko Kakutani said that this last chapter marred what was an excellent novel, but I totally disagree. All the throughout the book, but most poignantly after they return to their house, the protagonists have to walk on eggshells, keep their heads lowered, don’t cause trouble, don’t make eye contact. That last chapter is the opposite of the preceding chapters—it’s not quiet at all. Yet this change wasn’t jarring; it actually provided a cathartic release.
I didn’t even actively seek out this book even though I was aware that Otsuka was well-respected. It was on sale for a ridiculous price at the bookstore, so I just picked it up on a whim and then let it sit on my shelf. The story of that disturbing period in American history when Japanese Americans were held in internment camps didn’t hold any allure for me. I ended up reading it because I needed a quick read as a palate cleanser to a huge chunkster that I’d just finished. I’m so glad I did, because finding five-star reads is so hard for this picky reader.
This was my introduction to Julie Otsuka and it was amazing. As your average reader, I can’t figure out how Otsuka was able to tell such an evocative story in such a slim novel, using such (deceptively) simple language. I usually fall hard for novels that are maximalist to the hilt—crammed full of characters, sights, sounds, tangential stories, postmodern tricks and winks. The more flowery and complex the sentences are, the more likely I’ll love it. When the Emperor was Divine is a far cry from that kind of book.