Hey, Mom! The Explanation.

Here's the permanent dedicated link to my first Hey, Mom! post and the explanation of the feature it contains.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Neurosis, doubt, and a book review

My friend Suzanne has written her first novel. Scratch that. Published her first novel. There were other novels before this one.

Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata. Title is link to Leapfrog or try AMAZON.

I have had the book for a few months now. I finished reading it in February, and I have been struggling ever since with how to review it.
Why struggle? It’s my friend’s book. So why should there be struggle?
Well, first of all, Sue and I have been friends a long time. We went to Kalamazoo College together. I adore her. I count her among my dearest friends. Since I have known her so long, can any review I write be objective? Probably not.
I was prepared to love the novel. I was so excited for Sue and her success. And I did like the novel very much. There are many things about it that I love. However, as a whole, I did not love the novel. So, the struggle. Both my friendship with Suzanne and the fact that I am a writer myself caused me to hesitate writing my criticisms. In fact, given my blog’s minuscule readership of two people and their pet cats, I am not sure that I am even writing this for people to read. It’s something I need to write for me (but then why post it on the Internet... yeah, I know...).
I am not afraid of hurting Sue’s feelings. I know she can take criticism. We all can. It’s part of being a writer, of developing as a writer. And Suzanne Kamata is an excellent writer, even my criticisms do not detract from her talent and her success. But I did shy away from immediately emailing my impressions of Losing Kei to my friend once I finished reading it. I wanted to wait; I wanted to think.
One fear I had about my criticisms of the book was that I was jealous. I have been writing just as long as Sue, and I have yet to publish a novel. Would I share the same criticisms of the book if I were a published novelist myself? I spent a lot of time on this question, and in the end, I think that my criticisms are sound. I am not jealous of Sue’s success.

Do I wish I had a published novel?
Yes, of course.
Do I deserve to have one published more than Sue?
No, of course not.
Do I wish I had published first?
No, it’s not a race.

I am happy for Sue, and I am proud of her success. I am publishing the longer and more critical review of her novel here on my blog. On Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I wrote a more positive and shorter review that only hinted at my problems with the book. I detail them in greater depth here. The problems are neither many nor severe. The book is very good. I recommend it. And I am willing to admit that my first criticism – give me more about Japan – is probably my own desire to always have more, my own tendency to overwrite, to overcompensate; can you tell that this is my thing, the wordiness?
But the second criticism, about the ending, I think is very valid, and it’s a great weakness of the book. However, it was not a problem for other reviewers, either those who have posted to Amazon (there were none on Barnes and Noble before I posted) and for Susannah Elisabeth Pabot at Literary Mama.

So maybe if you read Sue’s book, and I hope that you do, you will find it to be an outstanding novel and see that she is nominated for book awards. Not that I am worried that my blog will sink the sales of her book. I don’t post here often, and I don’t think my friends even check it regularly unless I tell them I have a new post.

This entire preamble (and thank you for reading it) is the very essence of SENSE OF DOUBT. Can you see the neurosis at work? The anxiety and uncertainty? The self doubt? These are the central issues of my blog SENSE OF DOUBT, which, if all goes well, I will start posting to more regularly.

MY REVIEW OF Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata

Even without being a parent, I can imagine that a parent’s greatest fear is of losing a child. Suzanne Kamata illustrates this fear with palpable intensity in her debut novel Losing Kei.
The novel opens in 1997 with main character Jill Parker watching her son from a distance on the playground only to have him whisked away by his grandmother. The scene closes after only two short pages with the lines: “I have lost him again. I have lost my son Kei.” The impact of scenes like this one and those final lines is what is best about Kamata’s novel. Packed with mystery about what has happened to cause Jill to be separated from her son, what has caused the grandmother to shield the boy from his mother as if she were a criminal or worse, are the bedrock on which Kamata has staked her foundation. Kamata exposes Japanese xenophobic custody laws, which, in the case of a “gaijin” marriage to a native, the child is almost always awarded to the Japanese parent. As such a suffering “gaijin,” denied her son, the scenes of Jill’s loss and yearning are poignant and emotionally rich.

Beyond the initial scene of spying on her child like a voyeur, the novel Losing Kei charts the course of Jill Parker, an American artist, who tries to escape her broken heart in Japan, but finds it difficult to leave behind memories of her American ex-boyfriend. While working as a bar hostess, she falls in love with a Japanese man, Yusuke. They marry and a have a son, Kei, but the marriage and the life Jill believed she would have begins to unravel. Kamata generates suspense by interspersing chapters of Jill’s back story, told in past tense, with the scenes from the “present” (1997). Though the fact that Jill’s marriage to Yusuke has ended and that she has “lost” her son are revealed early, the reasons for these situations are the story the novel slowly unspools.
In one scene, Jill stakes out the home that she had shared with Kei’s father and grandmother; once everyone has gone to sleep, she invades the home, like a stalker or a detective. Present tense and facility with language drive these scenes hard with ever-increasing momentum demonstrating why Kamata has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize five times. Her sparse prose and deft touch with language are what best recommend Kamata as a writer. The rhythms of lean prose, trimmed of fat, and short scenes finely honed for maximum impact like a runner hones lithe muscles make the novel a fast and powerful read.

Kamata is also at her best when she details the landscape of Jill’s world, Japan, a world Kamata knows from her own experience. Though born and raised in Michigan, she moved to Japan many years ago to teach English and married a Japanese man; today, they are raising twin children – a brother and a sister – in rural Tokushima. Knowing the world of Japan as she does from the perspective of an American trying to fit in to a culture that sees her at best as a visitor and at worst as an outsider or interloper, Kamata has an exacting eye for the precise details that will best underpin her story. The novel may have benefited from more of these details of Japan, more of Jill Parker’s odd role as stranger in a strange land. The Japanese back drop gives the novel such strength that too much spent away from them seems to weaken the over all story, especially plot development toward a satisfying ending. What Kamata does include is well wrought but more may have been better.

Though the novel is a swift and enjoyable read, its greatest fault is its ending. The resolution of Jill’s stalking and her plans to get her son back are contrived and unwieldy. Given Kamata’s proficiency and skill as a writer demonstrated through the novel’s first 180 pages, the climactic scene seems rushed and poorly set up by the novel’s plot. Perhaps mandates of the publisher forced Kamata to keep the book at 200 pages and resolve her story quickly. Such an explanation would explain why the novel proceeds so carefully through 180 pages, almost languidly at times, with no sense of urgency, and then ends abruptly in a hurried way. The ending is far too easy given the struggles Jill Parker faced to work out even visitation let alone custody of her child.

SPOILER ALERT! If you don’t want to know how the novel ends, stop reading.

Perhaps my problem with the ending is that it affirms the goodness of people. I don’t want to think ill of the Japanese people or culture since I am a great fan of both. However, I am happy to think ill of people in general. People are not inherently good. The novel seems to support this idea for most of its 180 pages. True enough, most people do not share my view and want a redemptive ending, want affirmation that people are good by their nature as human beings.
Losing Kei presents the reader with an unjust situation for which its main character suffers. With the story, Kamata has written herself into a difficult spot. Jill has lost her son to a cultural system that awards its own people and does not acknowledge the same rights for naturalized citizens of other countries. But smart readers know that all of Jill’s skulking about, her machinations and plans to reclaim her son, must amount to something in the end, something must HAPPEN. Kamata know this, too, and she handles it all brilliantly up to a point.
Jill hatches a scheme to kidnap her child with the help of an informant, a babysitter, hired by her ex-husband. The babysitter manages to arrange several surreptitious meetings between Jill and Kei in a park, where Jill can secretly resume her role of mother with stories to read to him or fleeting, temporary gifts since he cannot take any of them home or reveal his clandestine relationship with his mother.

With only a handful of pages remaining before the book ends, Jill hatches a dangerous plan to take Kei to Indonesia to see a real dragon because he is so interested in the dragons in the stories she reads him. From there, she plans to take him to America. The scenes leading up to the abduction and the abduction itself are ooze with Jill’s disgust at herself for how she bribes and tricks Kei as well as her own self-doubt and recriminations that words of love or gifts are the wrong choices to win back the heart of her son. The scenes and Jill’s inner turmoil clearly establish a foreboding. Given the life Jill has been leading and the dangerous plans she’s hatching, is she really the best mother for Kei?

Also, in the ending, Kamata writes the boy’s own belligerent selfishness mingled with intermittent, unconditional love, brilliantly. It’s too bad the book does not go on longer to show more of the boy’s petulance.

As I read, I realized that Kamata had many choices for playing out the abduction story. But seeing that only a dozen pages remained, as a reader, I was confused as to how Kamata planned to resolve such a complex plot so quickly. Given that the book was almost at an end when Jill takes Kei to the airport, it was a likely guess that they would be stopped from leaving the country. I assumed that somehow the father Yusuke or the mother-in-law, someone, had found out about Jill’s plans and arranged to have her and Kei detained at the airport. This is a disappointing assumption because the thought of a perilous trip to Indonesia, of how such a kidnapping would affect Jill’s life and her chances of reclaiming custody of her son presented all kinds of fascinating choices.

Instead of being detained for possible kidnapping, Jill is detained for drug smuggling. The set up for how the drugs came to be in her bag is very poorly rendered. Even if readers were well prepared for this plot point, it does not seem like the right choice for the story, which has nothing to do with drugs or even risks of Jill’s associations with people who use drugs.
Furthermore, the drug incident seems glaringly out of character for Kamata as a writer. In nearly 200 pages, Kamata is as precise as a writer can be. Each scene is carefully sculpted, each sentence, each word precisely chosen. But drug smuggling? Seriously? It’s absurd. It’s not believable. Sadly, in this one moment, the whole novel is tainted. Perhaps not ruined, but flawed, smudged.

The wrap up of Jill’s unknowing drug smuggling is rushed. The last few pages truly read as if Kamata may have turned in a 400 page novel, and Leapfrog Press insisted that she bring it in under 200, and so she went back to the drawing board and concocted this less acceptable, less believable ending than the one she may have originally conceived. It is this criticism I hesitated to publish, as my introductory remarks indicated. But I need to write it down as much for myself as for my friend Suzanne Kamata and her excellent – I do still think it’s excellent in most ways – first novel.

In the rushed wrap-up, Jill gets to return to America without a trial or any incarceration for her crimes. There’s a good scene with her ex-husband that drips with Jill’s own self-loathing and yet almost irrational hopes and dreams for a relationship with her son, which at this point are quite laughable. And then, the novel skips ahead in time. The epilogue featuring this future glimpse also reads like something tacked on, almost as if Kamata did not write it herself. The evil mother-in-law has died; Yusuke is sending Kei to spend a year with Jill in America. It’s too easy. Too simple. Too contrived.

Though the ending disappoints, Kamata’s skill as a writer makes it work better than many other writers would have managed with her ever canny eye for detail and strong prose.
In the end, Losing Kei is about more than a mother’s separation from her son, it’s a journey of self-discovery and personal growth for a woman living as an expatriate, trying to find her way in a culture that is often dismissive if not hostile to others. Jill Parker’s quest to find both the essential meaning for her own life as an individual first and a parent second – or rather the two roles merged into one because aren’t all parents, parents first? – is the novel’s great work. The path to achieve those goals is fraught with great torment as Parker loses her son both in the sense of custody, first, and then his heart and his love as influenced by the mother-in-law character second. Kamata navigates the reader along this path with amazing celerity.

The jacket copy on the novel describes it as a cross between Lost in Translation and Kramer vs. Kramer. This comparison is quite misleading. The only thing Losing Kei has in common with Lost in Translation is that both tell stories about Americans in Japan. The similarity ends there. Readers should not expect Kamata’s novel to be anything like Coppola’s film. And Kramer vs. Kramer is about a custody battle in which the battle is shown: it’s the dramatic work of the movie. The custody battle of Losing Kei happens between scenes, and the novel’s dramatic work is about recovery from loss not battle for the custody of a child.

Despite my criticisms, the novel Kamata has written is well worth a reader’s time, and I highly recommend it. I plan to recommend it to the Kalamazoo Public Library’s reading program and to instructors at Western Michigan University as a course text as well as individual readers.

Beautifully packaged by Leapfrog Press, Losing Kei is a gem.