by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Published: March 2013
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Historical, Japan, WW2
Hardback: 384 pages
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A lush, exquisitely rendered meditation on war, The Gods 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 this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.
In-a-word(s): Old Japan, New Japan
Despite the sad topic, this story is told beautifully from different perspectives.
Not knowing much about Japan during this time period the rich details and descriptions really threw me into the time, place, event and aftermath.
A few photos are included at the start of some chapters which bring a nice touch to the story.
courtesy of author
[From The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, W.W. Norton 2013]
Yoshi’s ears were still ringing when the heat hit her with the force of a flung boulder. It blistered her lips, sealed her eyes shut like melted wax. I’m dead, she thought. But she wasn’t, she was still standing. Prying her eyelids apart with trembling fingers she blinked: everything in her vision was in flames. As her sight adjusted she heard a loud crack, a hiss, a groan—as though some huge beast had just been dealt its death-blow. The house directly behind them leaned drunkenly to the right, then collapsed, releasing a fountain-like spray of burning embers. A woman screamed, and Yoshi turned to see the suitcase-lady. Her fur collar and hair were in flames, which quickly spread to the synthetic stockings on her legs. Yoshi’s last sight of her was like something she’d seen once in an old painting in a temple; something their teacher had called a “Hell Scroll.” Entitled The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, it showed a huge, fiery demon consuming tiny people limb-by-limb, surrounded by more flames and staggering, fire-limned figures.
By now, everyone was running, colliding, falling. Satako was nearly knocked over by two children. Both were fully naked but for their fire-hoods, which themselves had burst into flames on the small heads. Hard on their heels came their mother, a furoshiki-wrapped bundle held aloft, another strapped haphazardly onto her back. The second bundle was smoking, but as Yoshi stepped back it burst into flame as well. She saw a small arm stir: it was an infant. By the time she’d managed to make her cracked lips move, the group had disappeared into the smoke. Another woman emerged, pausing briefly to help her child when it stumbled—only, apparently, to realize it wasn’t hers at all. The discovery made her drop the little girl’s hand: “Let go!’ she screamed. “Let go of me! I’m not your mother!”
Disengaging herself roughly, the woman dashed back towards the flames while the girl--no more than four or five--stared after her dully. Yoshi stepped towards her, her own hand extended. The child leapt as though she brandished a sword. “You’re not my mama,” she hissed. “Where is my mama?” And she backed away into the smoke.
Sickened and sweating profusely, Yoshi squinted back towards the shelter she’d seen. All she saw there was another wall of flame. A figure leaped jerkily against it, arms stretched skywards in pain or supplication. Behind it the nightsoil man’s horse screamed throatily and pitched over, pulling its cart into charred pieces. “It hurts,” she heard. “It hurts….”
For a single, bizarre instant she thought the cry had come from the dying animal. Then she realized it was behind her. Whirling around, Yoshi saw Satako flailing her arms. The bundle on her back, her leather satchel, coat and skirt, even the wet braid she’d been chewing—there were all on fire.
She will die, was Yoshi’s first thought. It came with an odd calmness; as though this were some inevitable, even uninteresting event. But then—to her own astonishment—she was suddenly in action. Stripping off Satako’s wool coat, shaking it out like a blanket. Motion preempting thought. She pushed her friend to the ground and rolled her, left-right-left-right, as they’d been taught. She stilled the jerking limbs. As the heat rose between them she felt the skin on her own chest start to blister. “Keep still. Sa-chan. Keep still.”
And then, miraculously, the flames between their bodies were gone. There was just Satako, sobbing weakly. Just Yoshi, panting and crying and coughing. There was just the smoke and the flames, the roaring heat behind them. By this point, it felt it had been there forever.
Panting heavily, Yoshi unpeeled the singed jacket from Satako’s motionless form. Her friend’s round face was half blistered, half completely charred. One braid was gone—singed off; the other smoking slightly, still tied in its bedraggled red hair tie. One eye was swollen shut. The other stared vacantly, its pupil dilated in shock.
“It hurts.” It came out barely a whisper.
“Can you stand?” Yoshi asked her. Then—because it didn’t matter, she had to stand --“I’ll help you. Here.” She linked her arm through her friend’s, pulling her heavily to her feet as to their right another building heaved a huge groan and collapsed. A laundry drying rack, its wooden limbs etched in flame, came flying at them at high speed. As Yoshi ducked another item from the house dropped heavily at their feet. At first Yoshi thought it was a beam of some sort, patched with red paint. Only as she stepped over it did Yoshi see that it was a body, charred and lifeless, wrapped in a scrap of torn red silk.
She forced herself to look away. With stinging eyes she surveyed Asakusa doori, fully advance in flames. It seemed hopeless; before her gaze another curving firewall sprang up, and then another. No matter what Nihon Hoso Kyokai or the Mainichi said, the Americans were not unskilled. They were as precise as any scroll artist, painting these fiery blossoms across the city. As brutal as the God of Heavenly Punishment, devouring bodies with flame.
The road was littered with the charred corpses of entire families; men, women, babies. A dog or two. Behind her a woman wept on the road, arms extended helplessly towards her collapsed house. At first Yoshi didn’t know what she was gesturing towards, but when she turned she heard a child’s voice, crying out weakly from amid the roaring flames: “Okaa-san. Okaa-san; tetsudate…” Mother. Help me.
“I’m a terrible mother,” the woman wailed. “I can’t go there. I can’t. I’m a terrible mother….I can’t go in.”
Turning away, Yoshi had a brief vision of giving up. Of just lying down where she stood. Sleeping or dying there. Then she noticed something she hadn’t earlier: that the crowd was moving, more or less, in one direction. Staggering, jostling, falling down and only sometimes recovering, the blackened stream of humanity inched its way towards the West. Where could they be going?
The answer dawned like a mythical breath of fresh air: They were heading towards the river.
“The Sumida,” she shouted.
Satako just stared blankly, so Yoshi repeated it, mostly just to hear the words in her own ears: “Back to the river. The park. Lean on me.”
Satako inclined her blackened head slightly, and Yoshi took this as consent. She cast another glance behind them, barely remembering what she was looking for until she saw it: Satako’s bicycle. It had somehow landed across the street, and now leaned against a stump that an hour earlier had been a lamppost. It was upside down, perched improbably on its broad seat the way Yoshi and Satako would sometimes position their tricycles as children together. Working the pedals with small hands, they’d watch with a strange sense of power as the trike wheels spun emptily against the air.
But both the pedals on the Fuji were gone, the basket a twisted mass of blackened wire. And the bike’s tires were not just not spinning. They were actually melting, stretching and dripping from their bent frames like strings of thick, black toffee. For some reason, the sight unleashed the first, real stab of grief that Yoshi had felt during this surreal and horrifying evening. A sob rose in her throat. Swallowing it back down she tightened her grip on Sa-chan’s shoulders, gently pulling her in the direction of the crowd.
“Come on,” she told her. “We’ll have to walk.”
* review copy courtesy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tour - check out the other stops for more details on this book and goodies