Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an apt title for this bittersweet coming of age love story set amidst the tatters of World War 2 and the heights of the rivalries between the USA and Japan (and China and Japan).
It’s 1986 and an old hotel, a symbol of the Japanese community during the earlier part of the century, is soon to be opened up again under new owners. However, a sudden and unexpected discovery has put a different spin on affairs. In the basement, a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia belonging to Japanese families of the war years has been found and this brings particularly acute memories back to Henry Lee, a retired widower who recently lost his long time wife to cancer.
Because Henry has a past he has been trying to bury beneath the mounds of time. A past which involved a painful adolescence growing up in the city’s Chinatown quarter with parents, especially his father, who were staunch nationalists for the cause back home and considered the Japanese as the devils incarnates. Henry managed to get a ‘scholarship’ to the local whites’ school, though this meant he had to spend his time in between and after classes helping out in the cafeteria and cleaning duties. Apart from putting up with bullies who equate him to the Japanese enemies despite his parents’ best efforts to remind everyone they were Chinese.
Into this insular world comes a breath of fresh and probably forbidden air. Keiko Okabe is an American, but in a suspicious age people mostly notice only her ancestry, which is Japanese. Ironic, since she doesn’t even speak the language and has always thought of herself as American. ‘Scholarshipping’ side by side with Henry, they develop a close bond and Henry soon feels the growing pangs of first love as he reaches the brink of his teens. However, his parents are staunchly against any sort of contact with the Japanese, and Henry is soon caught up in emotional and political turmoil, as numerous Japanese families are uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps, in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Among these is Keiko’s family and Henry feels the wrenching pain of separation with someone he was getting completely besotted with. Apart from this, things aren’t rosy on the homefront either, with Henry’s father virtually disowning his son. Henry though decides that he needs to make his own choices now and along with his friend, a Jazz player by the name of Sheldon, and his school’s lunch lady manage to keep in touch with Keiko by visiting her in the camps. But eventually, he knows the moment of truth will be soon upon them both.
The story is unabashedly sentimental at times, especially in the tender moments between Henry and Keiko. There are also some touching passages of his relationship with his friend Sheldon, and his days of caring for his terminally ill wife before her death. But it never feels forced. As readers, the melancholy and emotions soak into us gradually and we feel the throes of both young and old love and opportunities missed and people lost. The book interweaves between present day 1986 Seattle and the past of 1942 Seattle. In the present, Henry reconnects with his college going son and slowly divulges the details of his past life to him, while in the past Henry and Keiko’s connection is emphasized with an intimate look at the Jazz scene of the time which turns out to be their shared passion with a particular attachment to a record by a musician long lost since then. It also points out a probably forgotten episode of how the USA treated its own citizens (of Japanese descent) with their virtual confinement in ‘camps’ at the time.
There are some anachronisms and incorrect detailing at times, and it is tough to distinguish Henry’s present day voice from the past version of it, but these are surely forgivable in a poignant tale which primarily focuses on the issue of displacement and the shaky concept of patriotism in tough times. And of course, young and tender love at an age when kids mostly see with their hearts, the brink of adolescence, after which the bittersweet realities of the world start clouding over the innocence.