Such an unusual premise for basing a novel on too. The author, being third generation Japanese-Canadian, was born after the second world war. Her parents and both sets of grandparents were sent to internment camps during the war, as were thousands of people of Japanese descent in Canada and the US. A pretty appalling episode really, and unsurprisingly this was not a subject talked about when the author was growing up. As an adult she has done her own research which is where this novel has sprung from. However the actual experience of internment is not the main thrust of this novel, although definitely part of the background. This novel is about the post war experience of those living in an almost destroyed Tokyo in 1947, now under the Occupation of the US, led by General MacArthur, a figure it would seem who is almost revered and adored by his conquered populace.
Such is his mana that people from all over Japan write him letters, asking for help, looking for lost family members, giving suggestions on how to fix things, sending him gifts. The Allied Translator and Interpreter Service was set up to translate these letters into English, staffed by Japanese-Americans, and in this fictionalised account, Corporal Yoshitaka 'Matt' Matsumoto, who sees himself as American but is looked upon as being Japanese.
Also in this position is thirteen year old Aya. Aya and her father were interned in a camp in Canada during the war. Her mother died during the internment. Her father opted to return to Japan after the war, unable to face living in Canada and now Aya, more Canadian than Japanese, has to adapt to a new life, new people, new language. In her new school she is a perfect target for bullying, led by Fumi, who lives with her parents and sister. Her father was a bookseller who lost his shop and livelihood in the war. Her older sister Sumiko works in the 'entertainment' district of Tokyo, where there are plenty of US troops to be entertained. Her earnings support the family, until one day she disappears. An unlikely friendship springs up between the two girls - the feisty, angry Fumi and the bullied, unhappy Aya - when Fumi realises that Aya is fluent in English and is able to write to General MacArthur asking for his assistance in finding her sister.
By chance the letter ends up with Matt, but this does not stop the two girls from taking matters into their hands in looking for Sumiko, taking them into the underbelly of Tokyo, a very murky place indeed. Interlaced with these three characters are Sumiko herself who has her own reasons for disappearing, and the girls's school teacher Kondo who tries to make money on the side as a street side translator,
The themes of recovery, rebuilding, rediscovering, and rearranging life and self permeate the entire narrative and the characters. There is a lot of being in limbo, physically and figuratively, especially for Aya, her father and for Matt who has the added complication of possibly also being gay. I liked this book very much, almost sorry when it ended. It is also really good to be getting novels about the post WWII experience taking place in areas outside Europe.