- - Thursday, June 12, 2014

ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA
By Sarah Bird
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 336 pages

Sarah Bird’s “Above the East China Sea” weaves together the stories of two teenage girls. Tamiko is an Okinawan who suffers through the 82-day Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Luz is American. Her mother is the half-Okinawan master sergeant in charge of the police on Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base.

Both contemplate suicide, and Tamiko achieves it, throwing herself off a cliff above the East China Sea because she knows that “(e)ither the Japanese or Americans will kill us as soon as the sun rises. We cannot die such a violent death. If we do, we will be condemned to haunt this place forever and never be reunited with our clan.”

Nearly 70 years later, Luz is contemplating the hows and whens of suicide. She has lived her life on bases, making friends only to leave them, never close to her tough, rough-tongued mother, and emotionally sustained as a child by her Okinawan grandmother and her sister Codie. However, Codie joins the military, too, and is killed in Afghanistan. In Luz’s mind, this is entirely the fault of their mother, who had co-signed Codie’s enlistment papers.

The alternating narratives of Tamiko in 1945 and 21st-century Luz hook up when Luz, high on drugs and alcohol, swims out to sea and is swept into a cave where she sees a starving and wounded girl begging for help. As Luz is rescued, her last sight of the girl is a mass of whitened bones. Just before leaving the cave, Luz grabs something that has been sticking into her. It’s a lily-shaped pin, and it convinces her that the dying girl was no drug-induced mirage but real, and thus begins her mission to find out about her.

This quest leads to another quest. Why haven’t Luz’s Okinawan relatives welcomed them? Who is the man in the tattered photograph that they sent? What was her grandmother’s story? As the author tracks Luz through her hunt for answers, she also tells the story of Tamiko’s life growing up in a traditional village, longing to serve the Japanese emperor, most immediately by gaining entry to the prestigious school whose girls all wear lily pins. As Americans invade the island, and shatter the myth of Japanese invincibility, the schoolgirls are sent to nurse in underground hospitals for the wounded. Bombed out of these, Tamiko and her beloved sister Hatsuko wander the island, strafed and bombed in the battle — often described as a typhoon of steel.

The author paints a frightening picture of the pitiless war and the betrayal of Okinawa by the Japanese. Always sympathetic to the Okinawans, to whom her book is dedicated, she pulls no punches about their later betrayal when America returned the island to Japan in the 1970s, reserving 20 percent of its land for military bases, which even today remain a bone of contention with Japan. The bases are a world apart, with military values, stringencies and just plain madnesses that shape the lives of “brats” like Luz and her pals who spend their time getting high on the beach. So “Above the East China Sea” condemns not just war, but military culture in general. Its dedication includes the phrase “Nuchi du takara” — life is the treasure — an Okinawan saying often on the lips of Tamiko’s mother and Luz’s grandmother.

As much as this novel exposes the cruelty of militarism, it is also a novel about family. Tamiko’s is close-knit. After death, she is condemned as a rootless spirit. To be reunited with her ancestors, her bones must be interred with the appropriate rituals at the festival of Oban, when the spirits are close and families gather to revere their dead. In contrast, Luz has no real home, her father has left, her mother is incapable of empathy, and the emotional anchors of her grandmother and sister are gone. Yet, what about her multinational forebears and relatives that have made her a “yummy caramel colored” person? As she unravels the mysteries about them, her story entwines with Tamiko‘s, and thematically the subject of family merges into the subject of militarism and the ills it spreads.

“Above the East China Sea” could not have been written without deep knowledge about the history, geography and traditions of Okinawa. For readers without this information, this novel is informative. One of Ms. Bird’s skills is to instruct so enticingly. Another is to weave two complex stories together, each of them equally gripping because Tamiko and Luz are so richly portrayed. Formally, “Above the East China Sea” could be defined as a coming-of-age novel, but just like the equally applicable term “war novel,” that would be reductive. It is an extraordinary effort of the imagination and a major display of literary talent — an absolutely don’t-miss novel that should become a classic contribution to the fiction of our era.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor is Amherst, Mass.