An absolutely sublime début (5 stars)
Source- borrowed copy
Published by Ballantine Books (Allison & Busby)- February 2012
Paperback edition- 290 pages
This is a book that has been around a long while in the United States and overseas topping a lot of best-seller lists- and has made waves in the UK since its release in 2011. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while and finally had the pleasure of picking it up this weekend after being loaned it by a friend. Like a lot of absolutely outstanding books, this is a novel I wish I’d read ages ago. It’s a stunningly well-written book and as far as débuts go, stellar.
Like the writing style itself, the plot is powerful and beautiful, yet the pace remains surprisingly slow-moving for such a thematic story. As event unfolds, the reader is introduced to the recently widowed Henry Lee, who whilst strolling past the long abandoned Panama Hotel in down-town Seattle in 1986, sees personal belongings being carried up from the basement by its new owners. When Henry sees a parasol being opened he is overwhelmed by memories and transported back to a tumultuous time in his childhood and recollections of the girl he loved and lost at the height of World War II.
This was a story with many themes: war, romance, relationships and friendships. The strongest thread is woven around the Japanese internment camps established in the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbour and the persecution of the Japanese people within the US during the 1940’s. Embroiled within this historical detail is young Henry’s relationship with his school friend Keiko, a Japanese-American citizen and the struggles that she and her family also endure at the height of the conflict.
This novel really highlights the struggles faced by people caught between two cultures; Henry being Chinese-American is bullied by his peers for his own distinctive heritage, yet his father is desperate for him to only speak English at home. Henry was born in the United States yet his familial background ensures that he looks different from the other children he attends school with and that is something he cannot hide from. So he is not mistaken to be Japanese given recent events, his father also forces him to wear a badge stating “I am Chinese.” He is torn between what he wants and what it is expected he should be by his family. Meanwhile, Keiko is also US born citizen, yet their war with Japan ensures she is seen as an enemy and she is also taunted by her peers. The bullying and prejudice both she and Henry face is heartbreaking, yet the budding friendship between them was wonderful to read about and I grew to love both these characters who so strongly emphathised and connected with one another, they were truly memorable.
Another story thread is Henry in later life, and the ordeal undertaken to connect with his own son, Martin, following the death of his wife. The father-son relationship (or lack thereof) was really interesting to read about, as well as some of the assumptions that Martin had made about his father, judging by Henry’s own introverted behaviour and attitude. Henry hiding painful secrets from his loved ones had ensured that perhaps father and son were not as close as they should have been, and watching the tentative repair of their bond as the plot progressed was poignant and heart-warming.
Despite the book being beautifully written and the mood of the 1940’s flamboyant jazz clubs being perfectly captured, I also found other aspects of it really chilling. It is scary to think of the internment camps set up in the US and the persecution that the people within them faced as well as attitudes within the neighbourhoods and communities purely because of where they (or relations) were from. The grim and shocking realities of the camps are vividly brought to life, though I did wonder how easy it would be for someone like Henry to merely sneak in and out of it as he did within the story. Artistic licence there a little bit perhaps?! Needless to say, I also found the imagery of the burning of flags and other items of Japanese culture within Seattle’s Japantown to be both stark and poignant.
As the title of this book suggests, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet can admittedly be a bit saccharine at times; at first I wasn’t sure if it was trying to be a historical novel or a sentimental love story. When I let myself just go with the flow however, it proved to be a wonderfully engrossing ride with a beautifully fitting ending.
This is a story about love, war, race, acceptance and how our childhood experiences can later shape the people we become. It goes without saying of course, that I unequivocally recommend it.