Julie Otsuka’s lovely debut novel “When the Emperor Was Divine” is a quiet character study as well as a revealing look at an unspoken part of World War 2 – the internment of Japanese in America. (This also happened in Canada, and here it is not often spoken of, although a formal acknowledgement was offered by the federal government in recent years. There was a very good novel written about a Vancouver Japanese family’s experience – Obasan by Joy Kogawa.) What struck me about this novel was Otsuka’s gentleness and judicious choice of words. Through spare phrases that have an almost poetic feel, she views the internment through the eyes of a family – the children, the mother, and the father who was imprisoned separately.
The book starts with the mother preparing for their departure from their home in California. In careful words, mimicking the careful control the mother tried to exert over the strange situation she found herself in, Otsuka details the multitude of preparations.
“There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. These were the words she had written down o the back of the bank receipt. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said.”
The story continues with the journey to the camp and then the life spent in the camp itself, as seen through the eyes of the two children.
“The rules about the fence were simple: You could not go over it, you could not go under it, you could not go around it, you could not go through it. And if your kite got stuck on it? That was an easy one. You let the kite go.”
Perhaps the most haunting is the return to the family home and the experience of integrating back into society, right after the war, as seen again through the eyes of the children.
Finally, the novel culminates in the return of the father, with the final chapter, the shortest and most emotional, seen through his eyes.
This book was charming yet disturbing, quiet in prose yet purposeful in story. I look forward to reading more novels by Otsuka.