On a quiet street in Tokyo live Hiroshi and Kenji, two brothers, orphans who are cherished and nurtured by their grandparents. Known as the street of a thousand blossoms, this is an idyllic place in 1939, filled with fragrance from the flowers for which the street was named, the delectable odors that signal the presence of food vendors, and the scent of blossoming cherry trees that burst into pink clouds each spring. In the evening the sound of cello music drifts through the air as a young music student ends the day by sitting outside in her yard and playing Bach.
Hiroshi dreams of becoming a sumo wrestler. His younger brother Kenji, who has wandered into the world of a master artisan who carves and paints masks for the Noh theater, spends his leisure time learning all that he can from the brilliant and eccentric man who has befriended him.
Japan’s war in China is a distant reality that fails to disturb the tranquility that surrounds the boys, until the day that Hiroshi is chosen to enter a sumo training academy. As he rushes home to tell his grandparents, news of Pearl Harbor crackles from a radio, and the Pacific War begins, changing everyone’s lives forever.
This is the story of two brothers, their family, the women they love, and the traditional arts that underpin their lives—but it is much more than that. It is the life of one neighborhood, and the history that batters it, and changes it, that is the heart of this novel. An artist with words who is almost painterly, Gail Tsukiyama turns the lives of her characters into small splashes of color—a piece here, a piece there—to build a vivid portrait of the world that they live in. It is a tribute to her power and skill that every person whom she has created is fully fleshed and vibrant, in spite of the mosaic-like technique used to bring each one to life. They stand as part of the history that shapes them, of the events that are so much larger than fiction that only a skilled novelist could prevent these facts from turning her characters to puppets and overcoming her book.
But this doesn’t happen. The firestorms of the incendiary bombing that ravaged Tokyo, the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the deprivation and the changes that besieged Japan at the end of the war are shown through the lives of Hiroshi, Kenji and all in their community in a way that is both compelling and deeply credible. The drama of history is always anchored by Tsukiyama’s careful research and her precise and poetic use of language.
This novel is one to read, enjoy, savor and then read again. It is one of those rare pieces of fiction that gives its readers a time, a place and a world that is complete, indelible, wonderfully detailed and wondrously alive.
Reviewed by Janet Brown