This family saga (432 pages) was published in September of 2007 by St. Martin's Press. The book takes you to 20th century Japan. Melissa read The Street of a Thousand Blossoms and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This sweet and sad multi-generational family saga spans from 1939 to 1966, taking us — along with the unforgettable Matsumoto family — through the worlds of sumo wrestling, traditional Noh theater, and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.
When the story opens, two brothers — orphaned by their parent’s tragic death — are being raised by their grandparents. The boys are very close and polar opposites: Hiroshi is strong and outgoing, with dreams of becoming a superstar sumo wrestler. His younger brother Kenji is slim and quiet, nicknamed ‘Kenji the ghost.’ He’s a sensitive, artistic soul who longs to become a mask-maker for the Noh theater.
As the novel weaves the threads of the boys’ and their grandparents’ lives, it branches off to share the stories of the other people who become important to them: friends, lovers, spouses, co-workers. It’s a bit folkloric in tone, and Tsukiyama is adept at knitting the stories together in a way that keeps the pages turning and keeps us invested in the characters.
Eventually, Hiroshi is accepted into a program with a famous sumo coach, and Kenji becomes an apprentice to a notable mask-maker. They fall in love. It seems they’re on track to be successful and happy — then World War II literally explodes into their lives.
Early in the novel, the grandfather Yoshio tells the boys, ‘Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you’re fighting for.’ and that’s the theme of the whole book. Each of these people is trying to do the right thing: for themselves, for their family, for their country.
With rich detail about the world of sumo and Noh theater and vivid descriptions of Japanese food, the culture, and the landscape, this book is evocative, sweet, sad, optimistic, and heartbreaking — just like real life.
He heard Fumiko inside cooking dinner, the scent of rice wine and sugar in the air letting him know that he was still alive. He tilted his face up toward the warmth of the setting sun and closed his eyes against the dull throbbing in his head. He hadn’t forgotten the footsteps, feeling someone standing right there beside him, even if he refused to acknowledge their presence. Yoshio wasn’t ready to go yet. Life was too long and too short at the same time. — Gail Tsukiyama
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