From My Bookshelf: The Ocean in the Closet
(This review was first published in The Chattahoochee Review, Winter 2008.)
A TRANSPACIFIC TRANSGENERATIONAL STORY
The Ocean in the Closet. Yuko Taniguchi. Coffee House Press, 2007. 255 pp. $14.95.
As a reviewer, I try mightily to avoid Those Adjectives. You know the ones I’m talking about, because you see them in blurbs and reviews all the time: “riveting,” or “haunting,” or even “heartbreaking.” I’d love to avoid those adjectives here, too, but the trouble is that they do, in fact, describe quite precisely Yuko Taniguchi’s debut novel, The Ocean in the Closet, a multigenerational story that illustrates, remarkably, how trauma, both political and personal, reverberates through generations. It’s a heartbreaking book that I’ve now read twice—riveted each time—and one that will haunt me for a long time to come.
Nine-year-old Helen Johnson is the daughter of two damaged souls: Vietnam veteran James Johnson and his wife, Anna. Born in Japan in 1946 of a Japanese mother who died during Anna’s infancy, and an American father, Anna spent her earliest years in an orphanage. A missionary couple grew attached to her; by the time they were able to bring her to the United States for adoption, she was five years old, and did not adjust to her new home. The couple could not manage her; another local couple took her in.
Anna marries young, and is barely out of her teens when she becomes a mother herself. (But for a novel very carefully structured around time, the sequence is oddly opaque here: a photograph from Anna and James’s wedding is dated 1966; Helen is nine when the story opens in 1975; a 1967 letter from James in Vietnam indicates that her birthday is February 13. All of which suggests that Helen was either very much on the way, or even already born, when her parents married. In this novel, where parenthood and caregiving are so fraught with complications, the lack of clarity is puzzling.) In any case, in 1975 it’s evident that Anna is not equipped for the role. She regularly locks her children (Helen and her five-year-old brother, Ken) in a closet and frightens them with tales of a ghost that lurks behind the closet wall, waiting to pull them away. Her husband, struggling to deal with the sequelae of his Vietnam experiences, seems helpless to intervene.
History repeats itself when Anna’s children, too, must be relinquished to other caregivers. In this case, James Johnson’s brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Mary, take the children in (as Anna’s own maternal uncle, Hideo Takagawa, and his wife wanted but had been unable to do decades earlier; Hideo, a professor of English literature, had, nonetheless managed to remain a kindly presence in his niece’s life so long as they both remained in Japan), providing them with arguably the most stable and demonstrably loving home they have known.
Almost effortlessly (but smart readers will know better, and admire all the more the author’s accomplishment here), Taniguchi presents and brings together her characters and their connected histories. The novel builds to a visit Helen makes to Japan, accompanied by her Uncle Steve. There, they are the guests of Hideo and his wife. Although Helen does learn more about the culture from which her mother comes, she and Steve are kept from learning the full horror of her Japanese past. The reader, however, is not.
Dualities permeate the book. Two first-person narrators (Helen and Hideo) alternate the novel’s telling. Then, the novel is essentially set in two places: Helen’s native California, and Hideo’s Japanese homeland across the ocean. Beyond that, the mid-1970s era of the story’s present is informed intensely by the past, not only by the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, but also by the more recent past of Vietnam. Finally, the author pursues both public trauma and private suffering, and the ties between them, especially as they resonate through families and generations.
The Second World War effectively destroys the Takagawa family. In this, they’re hardly exceptional. Hideo’s recollection of his postwar return to his hometown—Hiroshima—includes a memory of an encounter with a boyhood acquaintance. Burns have disfigured the other young man; in his absence, his mother tells Hideo about her son’s new obsession with flies:
“There were millions of flies in Hiroshima. Thousands of dead and burnt bodies were left for days throughout the city. Flies tried to lay eggs on the open wounds of even the survivors. If the flies left eggs, the wound would become infested with maggots. I stayed up many nights with a rolled newspaper, killing the flies that came after my son’s burnt face. When he got well enough to sit up, he sat with a rolled newspaper and killed flies all day. Now, in February, there are no flies, but Yukio still thinks he hears flies buzzing above his head and wakes up in the middle of the night.”
Japan’s defeat and its consequences afflict the unborn as well. “We think children can’t remember their early experiences,” Hideo muses, “but what we feel through our skin is the soil of our memories, and although we may not have the concrete memory, we remember certain sensations.” He has always feared that his sister’s sufferings “somehow seeped through her skin to Anna’s body.” We cannot know exactly what “seeped through” to infant Anna. But something quite obviously did.
As a fiction writer, Taniguchi has done virtually everything “right” here. Her two narrators have distinctive, age-appropriate voices. In the hands of a lesser-skilled writer, a technique like letter-writing might seem clumsy and artificial, a convenient way to deposit needed backstory straight into the reader’s lap. Here—and perhaps this resonates especially with me because I can remember the 1970s, when, especially if we wanted to communicate with someone overseas, we did in fact pick up a pen and script a letter on that airmail stationery—the letters seem absolutely authentic and appropriate. Throughout, the historical details ring true; both an author’s note and an acknowledgments page attest to extensive research and knowledge.
Although The Ocean in the Closet is the first novel for Taniguchi, who was born in Yokohama in 1975 and now lives in Minnesota, it is her second book. This reader, for one, will soon be looking for the author’s poetry volume, Foreign Wife Elegy (also published by Coffee House Press), and anticipates with eagerness the work Taniguchi will present us with next.