BOOK REVIEW | A Novel by Karen Hill Anton: A Thousand Graces
Acclaimed author Karen Hill Anton has produced a masterfully crafted novel that will remain with you long after the final page is turned.
Karen Hill Anton will be a familiar name to many readers of JAPAN Forward. A long-term resident of Japan, she has lived in Shizuoka prefecture since 1975. Her column, "Crossing Cultures" appeared in the Japan Times for 15 years. She has recently enjoyed both critical and commercial success with her memoir, The View from the Breast Pocket Mountain, published in 2020. A Thousand Graces is her first foray into fiction.
Coming directly after a memoir, it is reasonable to assume that A Thousand Graces is also somewhat autobiographical. In an interview with JAPAN Forward, Hill Anton set the record straight. A Thousand Graces was largely transcribed in the mid-1990s before slumbering in a file for more than 20 years. When Hill Anton revisited it in 2020, she was pleasantly surprised at what she had formerly created.
A "pleasant surprise," however, is a considerable understatement for the quality of this novel. It is an absolute gem. The characterization is masterful, the narrative never wanes, and the economy of the section and chapter lengths seamlessly moves the chronicle forward. The ubiquitous comment from all who have read it to date is that they couldn't put it down.
It would be a surprise if A Thousand Graces does not succeed in winning literary awards in the manner of Hill Anton's acclaimed memoir.
Dreams Perused, Deferred, and Forgone
The novel centers on the post-high school years of farm girl, Chie Uchida, who graduates in 1969. She enrolls in a two-year junior college course but with greater aspirations than the standard transition to the position of office lady, leading to an agreeable marriage. Complicating proceedings is an awaked sexual desire that would more easily be satisfied if she submits to the life "already written" for her "on stone."
In commencing the novel in 1969, Hill Anton certainly stacked the odds against her. 1969 may have been the year in which man went to the moon but it was "mainstream man," not humankind, who made that epic trip. There are no minority faces to be seen in the documentaries on the Mercury and Apollo programs. Newsreaders in the West of 1969 were routinely white men. Bruce Springsteen's classic double album, The River, full of songs depicting similar themes to those found in this novel, would not appear for another decade. What chance would a farm girl have of breaking through in 1969 rural Japan?
The initial foil for Chie is Kimiko, a spoilt and self-possessed school friend, "so neat and orderly when it came to clothes, like she could be polite to clothes but not to people." Kimiko's life journey, the antithesis of that desired by Chie, held attractions that Chie correctly sensed were short-term.
A multitude of additional characters then gradually enter the narrative: an outsider in the form of an American professor, the American professor's coworker, the co-worker's wife and family, and Chie's brother, his wife, and in-laws. The characters encompass three generations and their stories intertwine. Weddings, deaths, and graduations occur over the five to six year duration of the tale. The central issue of when, if ever, to trade in dreams for security and social standing, runs through the novel.
A Thousand Graces begins and ends with Chie, but many readers may find themselves in greater identification with members of the supporting cast. Dreams can also be delayed by the temporary demands of child-rearing, only to reappear when children reach middle school age. The associated decisions then confronted are made within the pages of the novel as well.
The Japanese Setting
It is no surprise that Hill Anton, well versed in the traditions of Japan, weaves in descriptions and explanations of Japanese terms, customs, and lifestyle. These include mukoyoshi: a man marrying into a household bereft of sons being formally adopted and taking that family's name, satogaeri: the return of a pregnant woman to her parent's home to give birth, and teishukanpaku: an old-fashioned husband who never helps and expects everything to be done for him. Even those with a strong familiarity of Japan are likely to learn much that is new.
Of particularly memorable literary quality was the description of an ousetsuma: a formal reception room that is often found in the more well-to-do Japanese homes. It "had the cold, unused un-homelike feel that such rooms always do," Hill Anton writes, a Western-style room filled with "uncomfortable, dark-wood furniture. The busy patterns of the heavy upholstery seemed to grab the very oxygen out of the air."
Universal Human Experience
A Thousand Graces was set in Japan but Hill Anton stated to JAPAN Forward that she considers the experiences of the characters universal. The chronicle could just as easily have played out in a nation of the West. It is surely true, however, that the predicted endings to this tale by Western and Japanese writers would be different.
A Western writer, an American in particular, would typically opt for a triumph over the odds. A Japanese writer would settle on a less heroic resolution. How would Karen Hill Anton, an American who has spent much of her life in Japan, conclude it? The answer to that question is one of the many reasons why like so many others, you will struggle to put down this novel after commencing it.
A Thousand Graces is a beautifully written and constructed tale that cannot be recommended highly enough.
About the Book
Title: A Thousand Graces
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Karen Hill Anton
Publisher: Senyume Press (March 2023)
Format: Available in paperback ($16.99 USD) and eBook format ($5.99 USD).
To learn more, go to the author's website. The book is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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Reviewed by: Paul de Vries
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