This haunting and utterly compelling novel opens with a lyrical description of Kalihi Valley on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. "The valley is a woman with features of a face, a woman whose eyes watch the procession of the celestial sphere … with woodland arms outstretched and vulnerable." Immediately, the soft female imagery is wrenched apart by the discovery in the valley of a young woman’s dead body, raped and decapitated. The year is 1939. We learn the young woman is Hosana, daughter of Anah, eldest of three sisters about whom this novel revolves.
Twenty some years earlier, the sisters—Anah, Leah and Aki—have been banished, one after another, from their plantation camp home to a TB hospital-orphanage deep in the recesses of that same valley. Their Japanese mother, Sumi, is the purchased wife of Dai Medeiros, a Portuguese plantation luna, whose brutal control over the family includes sexually molesting Anah.
At the orphanage, the sisters wait for their mother and two brothers to visit, a heartbreaking longing that is never fulfilled. The younger sisters die from the disease, leaving Anah in an emotionally desolate environment ruled by German nuns. Except for the compassionate Sister Mary Deborah and Aunty Cheong Sam, the cook, Anah’s world is devoid of human warmth; even the ghosts of her sisters and Seth, a young boy who died before their arrival, are vindictive, jealous that she remains among the living.
Ezroh, Seth’s older brother, rescues Anah when she is 18 and takes her to live with his Portuguese family on their dairy farm. Here, she endures, as did her mother, the racism and cultural insults hurled by her in-law, Aunty Tova. "Half-breed orphan … our mother warned us against intermarrying, especially with the Orientals … Now look what your son has chosen for a bride. Even worse than a negra Portuguesa."
Anah and Ezroh have four daughters—Hosana, Elizabeth, Miriam and Claire—who all suffer weaknesses or accidents at birth, leaving one with a blind eye and another stunted in growth. Finally, with the murder of Hosana, a curse inflicted on Anah by the ghosts of her sisters is lifted. As she lies near death, she sees Hosana’s ghost leading her sisters, Seth and other spirits who have been trapped in the orphanage out of the dark valley into light. She is redeemed, at last freed from the guilt of having survived.
This dark yet luminous novel flows between the ghost world and mundane reality with an impressive flexibility of style: straightforward narrative, letters, songs, poems, incantations and lists of cultural foods create a tapestry that enriches the eye, and more so, stuns the heart with emotional power. The non-rigid style shows that yin qualities of subtlety, constrained passion, and beauty cannot only co-exist with yang outbursts of wild energy and over-the-top expression, but give a reading experience that is all the more powerful because of it.
Reviewed by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston