I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara
Published by Dundurn on April 15th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical, Asian American
Format: Electronic ARC
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What good could come of knowing you’d fallen out of time, your whole life seized away from you?
Toronto, Canada in the 1980s: Three days have passed since anyone has seen Lily. She has always been prone to wandering off, but she usually returns within a few hours. She has never been missing for this long. Her daughter Rita has always resented her eccentric behavior, but Rita would forgive everything if she could just get her mother back. The police say there’s no evidence of a crime, so the burden is on Rita to search for clues to her mother’s whereabouts. Lily has never been open about her past; in fact, she denies the worst parts ever happened. Rita digs deeper into her mother’s history and discovers there’s much more to Lily’s story—and consequently, her own.
Matanzas Internment Camp, California in the 1940s: Lily has a history of memory problems. She had to dissociate to make it through her horrific childhood. When Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians were forced into internment camps during World War II, eighteen-year-old Lily was interred at Matanzas. She falls in love with the rebellious photographer Kaz and becomes close with his father, the camp doctor. She plays a role in the events leading up to the Matanzas Riot because of her desperate need to love and be loved. Torn between love and doing the right thing, her need to retreat into a fantasy world grows stronger. Is Lily even capable of knowing what the truth is?
Rita thought about the Japanese fairy tales Lily had once told her, all the stories of sudden disappearances and reversals of fortune. Girls who dropped iridescent eggs and accidentally killed their unborn children — their resplendent, palatial surroundings suddenly vanishing. Young men who opened boxes they’d been forbidden to look inside, only to be confronted by clouds of smoke and broken mirrors that revealed faces of old men. None of us are where we think we are. None of us are who we think we are. The present constantly disappears, time violently yanked away. That inevitable process of aging could be mysteriously — tragically — accelerated. So many of these tales were about lives evaporating, futures cancelled in a heartbeat.
This story was inspired by the author’s own family history. Leslie Shimotakahara is a fourth generation Japanese-Canadian whose grandparents were interned during World War II. Matanzas is a fictional place, but it’s loosely based on the actual Manzanar incarceration center. I was glad that I read George Omi’s memoir American Yellow right before this book, because it provided helpful context and vocabulary. After the Bloom book features an older character, so it gives more insight into the adult rivalries and resentments. The chapters alternate between Rita and Lily’s perspectives. Rita has never had a healthy relationship with her mother. When Lily acts helpless, Rita feels “this cruel, uncontrollable, animalistic urge to tear apart the little world her mother had fabricated out of tissue-paper lies and delusions.” Rita manages her time with Lily, because “too much chit-chat would only fill her with irritation or worse yet, that gnawing, empty feeling: they’d never see eye to eye on anything.” The differences between them seem unimportant now that Lily is missing. Rita is determined to find her mother. She’s also dealing with a recent divorce and insecurity over her six-year-old daughter spending time with her father and his new girlfriend. Lily’s chapters cover her time in the internment camp and the shaky rebuilding of her life afterward. Lily chapters are more focused and she’s the most interesting of the two characters, but she’s difficult to connect to because she’s so adrift. Her loose grip on reality and the way she is a supporting character in her own life makes her chapters feel fuzzy around the edges.
Nature on the verge of dying was often more beautiful than at the height of its bloom.
Secrets are kept to protect the secret-keeper and those around them, but sometimes knowing the truth can give people perspective and closure. Rita initially mocks the paranoia and conspiracies of her mother’s generation, but she realizes their fears are justified when she begins to dig deeper into her mother’s past. Men in dark suits were out to get them. Many of their family members were whisked away in the middle of the night to be interrogated, some of them never to be seen again. Family bonds were dissolved and generational wealth was lost. After they were released from the internment camps, they had to start from nothing in a hostile environment. Rita had experienced prejudice due to her Japanese descent, but she is shocked to hear about the level of discrimination suffered by Japanese-Canadians who are only a decade older than her. She was aware of the internment camps in the United States and Canada, but she had never considered the full extent of what her mother had been through. In context, Lily’s idiosyncratic behavior (the well-stocked wallet, extreme frugality) suddenly makes sense. Lily becomes more than just her mother, but also a young woman who came from nothing and raised two children alone. As a young mother and recent divorcée, Rita now realizes what incredible odds Lily faced. With a new understanding of Lily’s past, Rita may also come to understand how her family became so dysfunctional and why she and her brother had such different childhoods.
“Yeah? I’ve heard rumblin’ about that stuff. Sure, it was bad what happened, but we’ve all had to take the short end of the stick from time to time. That’s how history works — winners and losers. If all the losers wanted the government to write ’em a cheque, where’d the handouts stop?”
“Maybe if the government didn’t have its head up its ass so much, it wouldn’t have to keep writing cheques.”
Shame touches everyone in this story.
• As a child, Rita was sometimes ashamed of her heritage and her mother: “It was bad enough being Japanese. … The last thing she wanted was to be seen as both the Japanese girl and the girl with the crazy mother.” Now she is ashamed of her new status as a single mother and her drop in social class.
• Lily feels shame when she realizes how all of the men in her life have used her. It’s always been easier for her to tell people what they want to hear and she’s ashamed that she remained silent when it mattered the most.
• An entire generation is ashamed. In the internment camps, Lily watched “distinguished men reduced to beasts of burden.” When everyone was allowed to return to their lives, many were willing to do anything to assimilate, including hiding their culture:”Forget everything, turn the other cheek. Pull yourself up by your goddamn bootstraps.” Some people were so ashamed of what happened to them that they withdrew from society completely.
• Governments are ashamed of their actions and gloss over shameful events in their history books. The euphemistic view of the internment camps and the government propaganda efforts give those whose rights were never in question a privileged view of what happened: “No one had been comfortable with all those Japs living off the fat of the land anyway while the rest of America had suffered wartime shortages.” Rita is frustrated with the concept of the “model minority” and how some community members are exalted as examples of how polite and strong one should be after their rights have been trampled. Anyone who doesn’t behave the “correct” way is seen as the problem, rather than the thing they were forced to endure.
Everyone, perhaps, had these faint, staticky shadow selves following them around, like degraded clones. Yourself, but not yourself. Things you’d done, but couldn’t believe you’d done, would never acknowledge. Parts of yourself you couldn’t bear to own.
The ghosts of the past linger, long after they were thought to have been left behind. Rita and her brother always knew there was something wrong, but they had to pretend not to see it. Because of all the secrets and shame, Rita has to deal with a gaping hole in her family history, as well as a distant relationship with her mother. Both Rita and Lily develop some type of split self to deal with demanding circumstances. In order to move forward, both women need to deal with their pasts. Rita needs to work through her difficult relationship with her mother. Lily needs to deal with her past trauma and guilt. After the Bloom is about the things we do to survive and the things we do to live with ourselves. Do lies for the greater good actually benefit anyone or does it just extend the pain? Many of the characters try to forget the past to protect themselves and those around them. Is it better to forget or does remembering make us whole? No matter how much we might want to forget, the past can never be truly buried. The effects of the past reverberate through generations, whether we recognize it or not.
• Book Trailer
• Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment – Photographs play a key role in the story. Photos can show what actually happened, but they can also be used to show what we want to see. Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange’s photos of the internment camps were confiscated by the U.S. military and hidden away in the National Archives until 2006.
• Manazar Riot/Uprising – The Matanzas Riot is loosely based on the 1942 Manazar Riot.
• Driven Underground Years Ago, Japan’s ‘Hidden Christians’ Maintain Faith – History is filled with people deemed as undesirable by their fellow citizens. Rita notices how Lily seems to shield herself with bigotry. It’s a reminder that these are not just isolated instances in history and that it’s important to look inside ourselves.
• The Redress Movement- A campaign to obtain restitution and an apology for the internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
• The theme of collective amnesia reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:
“I know my god looks uneasily on our deeds of that day. Yet it’s long past and the bones lie sheltered beneath a pleasant green carpet. The young know nothing of them. … Be merciful and leave this place. Leave this country to rest in forgetfulness.”
“Foolishness, sir. How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery? I see how devoutly you wish it, for your old horrors to crumble as dust. Yet they await in the soil as white bones for men to uncover.”