Content warning for rape.
Every culture has its stories and rituals for death. In The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda, by Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo, we see traditional Japanese beliefs and ceremonies used as a vehicle for the Tsuruda family to make long-delayed amends to a member of the family who has always been patient and dutiful no matter how much she was wronged by the others. As Kenzaburo attempts to fulfill a task given to him after his death, we see him come to terms with his family’s classicism, sexism, greed, and entitlement as he delves deeper into a history he willfully blinded himself to.
The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda moves back and forth between four characters. Kenzaburo, as a member of the recently dead, shows us both his perspective on life with his wife and the rest of the Tsuruda/Uribo clan as well as the Shinto version of the afterlife in Japan. Satsuki, Kenzaburo’s wife, is suffering from dementia. Her perspective takes us back to the early days of their marriage and the last two years of World War II, when she took unwilling refuge with her brother-in-law’s family. Through Haruna, their daughter, we see a new generation struggling against the traditional expectations of her parents and aunt. They want her to be a wife and mother; she wants to be an astronomer and academic. Finally, Tetsuko Uribo, Kenzaburo’s sister-in-law, provides somewhat of an outsider perspective on the tangled family history.
The novel also moves back and forth in time, from the first half of the 1940s to around 1990. Kenzaburo and Tetsuko have missions. Tetsuko has been charged by a dying Satsuki to go back to country home outside of Hiroshima where they weathered the war and find something that has been hidden. Tetsuko has no idea what it is and Satsuki is too far gone to explain herself. The quest makes Tetsuko reexamine how much more she owes Satsuki than she knew. Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Kenzaburo is tasked by Inari, the kami of foxes, to completely reexamine his obliviousness to his wife’s sufferings and his oppression of Haruna over the years. If he cannot be completely honest, his entire family of greedy, classicist frights will become hungry ghosts.
The bulk of the novel revolves around Satsuki’s story and Haruna gets a bit lost in the overall narrative. I enjoyed Haruna’s subplot because I have particular sympathy for women who run headlong into the seemingly impossible problem of wanting to have a career while everyone else wants her to be a housewife and mother. (One potential suitor proposes with the question: Would you do my laundry for the rest of our lives?) At times, her story seems a bit shoe-horned-in.
The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda read to me like a blend of historical fiction and travel guide with a touch of the supernatural. The text is liberally seasoned with Japanese words and references to Shinto beliefs and Japanese culture. I enjoyed the book for its breadth and its focus on how blind people can be when they are either so focused on what they want or because they just don’t want to see unpleasantness. It is a very well done story of discover and atonement.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.