The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

Cover image for The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein by Jennifer Cody Epstein

ISBN 978-0-393-07157-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“And of course, Billy believed this, just as he believed America’s war had been a just one. If it caused destruction, it as to prevent greater destruction; if it caused death, it was to prevent more death. And yet, staring at the wasted scenery—the bloated children, the scarecrow adults—he found that it didn’t fit into an equation. The filth and illness and rubble seemed neither part of an action nor a consequence of one; neither a crime nor a punishment. It was simply what it was: a charred expanse of loss and nothingness. And end.”

The Kobayashis, the Richards and the Reynolds families do not know one another well, but they are deeply interconnected. Friends, lovers, and coworkers, allies and enemies, their paths cross again and again over a thirty year period centered on the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. Before the war, Cam Richards was a shy newlywed. When his plane goes down after a bombing run over Tokyo, he finds himself a prisoner of war in occupied Manchuria, and his family back home waits years for news of his fate. In the years leading up to the war, Anton Reynolds, architect, and Kenji Kobayashi, master carpenter, worked together to create many of Tokyo’s landmarks. But come the war, Kenji is charged with building Japan’s colony in Manchuria and Anton is back in America, building model Japanese villages for military bombing tests. Yoshi Kobayashi is left behind in Tokyo with her ailing mother, trapped there on the fateful night of March 10, 1945, when Tokyo was firebombed and burnt almost to the ground. In the aftermath of the devastation comes Billy Reynolds, who was born in Tokyo, now assigned to the military translation unit of the occupation. Each with one foot in the East and one foot in the West, Yoshi and Billy blur the lines between “us” and “them” as Jennifer Cody Epstein explores love, loyalty and loss in times of war.

Despite the publisher’s blurb centering on Yoshi, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment consists of an ensemble cast of interconnected characters from the three families. Beginning in 1935, and concluding in 1962, the six lead characters each take up the role of narrator in turn. Often, they draw over the same events from a new perspective, offering up scenes that are familiar, and yet different when seen from the other side. These layers build slowly on one another and at first each new point of view seems to obscure the last. We cannot simultaneously identify with both Anton’s love affair with Japan, and Hana Kobayashi’s longing for the freedom of the West, and so Hana slips away as Anton comes into focus. But in the final chapters, the many images suddenly coalesce into a complex portrait of a multi-faceted conflict with victims on both sides.

The novel juxtaposes personal narratives and historical events in careful balance. Beneath the narrative of the war runs a story about gender roles and expectations. Neither Cam nor Billy can live up to their fathers’ standards for a man, though each for different reasons, while Hana and Yoshi chafe against the expectations of the men in their lives. Epstein blends ample research and historical context with her own knowledge and experience of Japan, where she lived for five years. Although not as familiar as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombing of Tokyo claimed over 100 000 lives, and devastated the city for years to come. Epstein does not shrink from the horror, and yet manages to draw it out delicately and evocatively, rendering scenes that are at once terrifying and beautiful. The result is a book that is ponderous and slow-moving, yet haunting and unforgettable.

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Already read and enjoyed The Gods of Heavenly Punishment? I recommend The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

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