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May 2019



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A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, Jackie Copleton

Here’s another book on the Baileys longlist. I was able to read it because NetGalley offered a ‘read it now’ option to a limited number of readers. It was published last July, so has already been discussed elsewhere. It took me days to read this book. Not because it’s long but because I was never in a hurry to get back to it. The title comes from the chapter headings, taken from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture by Bates Hoffer and Nobuyuki Honna. These explain Japanese words and their cultural meanings.

Amaterasu Takahashi is a widow, living in America, who survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki which killed her daughter Yuko and her grandson. One day, a terribly scarred man knocks at her door and begs her to believe that he is her lost grandson, Hideo. This forces Amaterasu to face up to many things in her life she would rather forget. She blames herself for Yuko’s death because she had arranged to meet her on that day in 1945 but was late. We later learn that the meeting would have been a fateful one.

The narrative moves backwards and forwards, from Japan to America, and includes extracts from diaries written by Yuko, the lost daughter, and letters from Sato, the doctor Amaterasu believes responsible for all the family’s troubles. This is usually too convenient a plot device.

Amaterasu refuses to believe in ‘Hideo’. The question is, why would anyone believe her? It turns out that she has been lying all her life (except to her husband), to hide her own background and as she believes, to protect her daughter. She is not an easy character to like. Nor is it easy to like the Japanese. Their culture is fascinating; their war crimes as described here worse than one could have imagined. This doesn’t make for easy reading. Why does Ameratsu hate Sato so much? Can she reconcile herself with the past as Hideo, the peace worker and lecturer, has managed to do? It’s worth finding out but although the book is well written and obviously well researched, I couldn’t love it.