First published in 2009, this beautiful debut novel by Jamie Ford is one of the most moving and heartwarming books I have ever read.
The story is told throughout from the perspective of Henry Lee, a recently widowed Chinese man who has lived all his life in Seattle. It begins at The Panama Hotel, which once was the gateway to the city’s Japantown (and indeed still stands today), where the new owner has made an astonishing discovery in the basement of the premises – boxes upon boxes of possessions belonging to Japanese families, hidden there when they were forced to leave the city during World War II and sent to internment camps.
As the crowd gathers, including Henry, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple gesture transports Henry (and us with him) back to 1940s Seattle when, as a young boy sent to the exclusive elementary school at which he is one of the few non-White students, he meets a young Japanese girl called Keiko Okabe and a strong bond of friendship is formed. This wonderful novel takes us in to their lives at a time when such a friendship with anyone Japanese would be seen as a risk, particularly by traditional Chinese families like Henry’s family and his father in particular, whose life is consumed with the defeat of the Japanese.
As their story progresses, we move seamlessly between 1940’s Seattle and the present day, where Henry’s childhood story fascinates his own grown up son and helps him to learn more about and grow closer to his father, whilst providing the reader with a captivating story of love, loyalty and friendship.
I don’t want to give any more of the plot away as this book should be read without too much knowledge of the path the story takes. The writing by Jamie Ford is superb, bringing to life the worlds inhabited by the characters over the different time periods so clearly, that you cannot help but fall under the spell of the story of Henry and Keiko’s childhood bond. It is also an incredibly moving book, which gave me a far greater awareness of how Japanese families were treated in America during World War II. It is frightening that such actions occurred not too long ago.
Very few books have moved me quite so much as this one and I was incredibly sad when I reached the end and had to leave the world I had become a part of behind. It is now a novel I recommend to family and friends and have kept myself, so that one day I can enjoy its beauty all over again.
The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet by Jamie Ford is available from all the usual book retailers.