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Life can be tough when you are 12, going on 13, and wondering if you are falling in love for the first time. When it happens to be the middle of a World War, you are of Chinese origin and torn between two cultures things are more complicated too, and when the object of your affections is American born Japanese, life is not set to be straightforward. Such is the situation for Henry, in Seattle. in a book that sees the story going between 1986 and a post Pearl Harbour America in 1942. In the part of the story set in the 80s, the 56 year old recently-widowed Henry is made to recall his past self when the Panama Hotel, the one of the title, is being renovated, and the discovery is made of lots of objects left by Japanese families who were forcibly sent to internment camps in the War years. The scene is set for the story of Henry and his Japanese friend Keiko to be told in a book that is both utterly compelling and an education into an aspect of the Second World War that is probably an untold one - how does a country cope when some of their own citizens are, on paper, the "enemy"?
"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is quite simply a delightful book that will touch the hardest heart. Far more than a classic coming of age story, this novel touches on many interesting themes. We know from the start that Henry is destined to be the husband of an "Ethel", but as the book unfolds we learn much about his 13 year old self and the how the choices he makes impact on the rest of his life. We are reminded too quite how different the world was back then, particularly if you were non-white and living in America. Open racism is a fact of life, and one that Sheldon the black Jazz player, Keiko the beautiful Japanese girl and Henry, the offspring of parents who make him "speak American", even though they can't understand him, all experience in different ways. From the reality of the camps the Japanese Americans are imprisoned in, to the insight Henry's friend Sheldon gives us to the Jazz scene, the book covers many themes and a whirl of emotions, all to the sound track of an elusive record that Henry has been looking for the whole of his adult life.
I have to say that I found that this book was really unputdownable and that I really cared what happened to the characters. Though told in the third person, their world became real for me and I thought that this book was beautifully written and had a strong story that worked on every level, even with the constant juxtaposition between different times. It was interesting having a little insight into the life of both the Japanese and Chinese communities in Seattle, though lumped together as "not American" by many Americans both communities have their own history and reasons for conflict, and the pin badge Henry's father makes him wear that says "I am Chinese" is an ironic symbol of the world he finds himself in, caught between different cultures and no longer a child but not quite a man. The 56 year old Henry is a father himself who wonders if his son sees him the way he saw his own father. Henry, in both his young and older incarnations has an interesting story to tell. The novel was well paced, beautifully written and didn't disappoint me in any way, it was one of those books that I was really sad to see end, I could have read on some more, and then some.
I will definitely be looking out for more from this author, whose debut novel this is; it has already been translated into 29 languages and is a New York Times bestseller, without doing a disservice to the author this doesn't read like a first novel in many ways - this reads like the work of an established and confident writer. It's my opinion that this book could well be a future classic, and I feel sure it will be one I will read again. This novel is one that really deserves five stars, and I recommend you read it.
Book currently priced at £8.45 in hardback on amazon where it is also available in kindle format - my copy was received as part of the Amazon Vine Programme.
After being delighted by the Time Traveller's Wife I was certain that I wouldn't find a book that could match up to Audrey Niffenegger's brilliance but Jamie Ford's debut novel Hotel on the Corner of the Bitter and Sweet comes a very close second.
I first heard of this novel when it was mentioned on the blog run by Ford's literary Agent. She announced that the sale had been made and posted a synopsis and I was immediately intrigued.
The story focuses on Henry and Keiko who are living in Seattle in 1942. Henry is Chinese-American and Keiko is Japanese-American. It is their double culture which provides the conflict in their relationship. The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbour and Henry's strictly traditional father hates everything about the Japanese.
Despite these early troubles though Henry and Keiko's friendship grows. The twelve year olds form a united front at their all-white American school and starts off as the typical outcast friendship. It soon develops though and the pair are forced to deal with their conflicting cultures despite both believing that they are American.
As the American war grows against Japan however, this means trouble for Keiko and her family but Henry is determined to remain with her.
Another side of this story is modern day Henry who is reflecting on the story in 1986. He is looking at his own son and thinking about how their lives are different as his son doesn't live with the same strict traditional views that Henry had to live by.
Through having this time switch from 1986 back to 1942 and back again in the different chapters it shows the differences between the Chinese-American generations and how it has evolved over time.
The essence of this novel though is the love story between Keiko and Henry. Even though they are only twelve, when Henry turns thirteen he is considered an adult by his Chinese heritage and he tackles the situations he faces with maturity that might not be found in present day children.
The novel is set in Seattle in both 1986 and 1942, the 'Hotel' in the title refers to the Panama Hotel which is an actual hotel in Seattle (but I've not read anything that suggests this was based on a true story). The hotel plays a key part in the story and almosts acts as a character in itself.
I absolutely loved this book. It was interesting to read about a part of history that I had never even thought about before. When we think of World War Two, most of us will immediately think of Hitler and the Holocaust and while this is a tragic part of history it has overshadowed what happened to the Japanese-Americans on American soil as the war against Japan raged.
This novel mixes the themes of friendship, first love, war, family values and most importantly culture and what it's like to deal with a double-barreled culture that conflicts with another.
I've found this book hard to come by in England so I had to order my copy from Amazon but it's definitely worth finding if you like novels like Time Traveller's Wife.
Jamie Ford's website is:
Ford's Agent's blog is:
http://pubrants.blogspot.com (where the novel was first announced)
Query letter that Ford sent to his agent about the book:
The book is 320 pages long and easy to get through in a few sittings.
Amazon price: 6.91GPB
Thanks for reading x