Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Losing Kei

Summary: A young mother fights impossible odds to be reunited with her child in this acutely insightful first novel about an inter-cultural marriage gone terribly wrong.

Jill Parker is an American painter living in Japan. Far from the trendy gaijin neighborhoods of downtown Tokyo, she’s settled in a remote seaside village where she makes ends meet as a bar hostess. Her luck changes when she meets Yusuke, a savvy and sensitive art gallery owner who believes in her talent. But their love affair, and subsequent marriage, is doomed to domestic hell, for Yusuke is the chonan, the eldest son, who assumes the role of rigid patriarch in his traditional family while Jill’s duty is that of servile Japanese wife. A daily battle of wills ensues as Jill resists instruction from Yusuke's mother in the proper womanly arts and even the long anticipated birth of a son, Kei, fails to unite them. Divorce is the only way out but in Japan a foreigner has no rights to custody and Jill must choose between freedom and abandoning her child.

Told with tenderness, humor, and an insider’s knowledge of Japanese family life Losing Kei is the debut novel of an exceptional expatriate voice. -- Leapfrog Press

LOSING KEI by Suzanne Kamata is a very well-written novel that will draw you in from the first few pages. Not only will you enjoy reading the story of Jill, but you will also truly appreciate Ms. Kamata's writing style and her beautiful, descriptive prose. I found myself reading this book very quickly because I was so caught up in Jill's life and desperately wanted to know if she was reunited with her son.

While I didn't always find myself agreeing with Jill and her decisions, I still liked her and definitely felt sorry for her. I can't imagine how hopeless she must have felt living in a foreign country with a horrendous husband and his mother. It was just pitiful how she thought her love life and career were finally falling into place; and instead, her life ended up turning upside down. No matter how hard she tried, she would always be an outsider in her marriage, his family and his county. Jill is one of those characters that remain with you for days after you finish reading the novel.

As a mother, I did have some difficulty reading this novel. I wasn't sure that I could understand Jill's decision to leave her husband (even though he was awful) if it meant that she would lose custody of her son. Nevertheless, Jill's pain of losing her son was just horrific. I actually felt sick in my stomach at times as I read about her desire to see and touch her son. I thought Ms. Kamata did an incredible job of conveying Jill's emotions, and I thought Jill's downward spiral was extremely realistic for her character. Although she was deeply flawed, she did come across as being very human.

I thoroughly appreciated how Ms. Kamata chose to tell this story. The chapters alternated between 1997 when Jill lost custody of Kei and went back to 1989 when Jill first arrived in Japan. She continued to tell the story with flashbacks to the major points in her life. In an interview, Ms. Kamata said, "My earlier attempts at novels were linear and covered years, beginning when the main characters were teenagers. I realized, however, that this structure made the stories slow. Beginning with the 1997 section in which Jill has already lost Kei raises questions I hope will hook the reader: how did Jill lose him? Why did she come to Japan? What is she going to do?" I think she made a very wise decision to write the novel this way, and it definitely hooked me in.

There is no doubt that Ms. Kamata is a very talented writer. Although LOSING KEI is her first novel, her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. In addition, her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times (she received a special mention in 2006); and she is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest. She currently resides in Japan with her family and teaches at Naruto Educational University. It's apparent to me that she really knows Japan's culture; and as a result, the book has a very realistic feel to it. If you'd like to learn more about Ms. Kamata and her works, check out her website and her blog.

LOSING KEI is a wonderful book to discuss at your next book club meeting. Not only is Jill's story intriguing, but there are also many themes that you and your friends can dissect. It would be very interesting to hear everyone's thoughts about Jill's lifestyle and her decisions. In addition, it would be fun to talk about the cultural differences in the United States versus Japan as well as the mother/child bond, the role of women in various societies, and the difficulties with fitting into other cultures.

Also reviewed at:
Diary of an Eccentric


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Julie - this one has looked good to me for a while.

Anonymous said...

I've been eyeing *Losing Kei* as well! I've read one of Suzanne Kamata's stories (in an anthology she edited); she is a talented author.

I agree - based on your review I can see many themes that a book group could tackle during a discussion!

Anna said...

This was a great story, and I agree it was hard to read at times. Kamata did a wonderful job showing how Jill's decision tore her apart. I linked to your review from mine, which is here:

If you're interested, I also interviewed Suzanne here:

Diary of an Eccentric