Above the East China Sea: A Novel, by Sarah Bird (Random House)
I have a new favorite book of the year: Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea. This is one of those deeply satisfying reads that works on many levels. It moves among several settings: the U.S. military base on Okinawa in the present day and Okinawa outside of the base; Okinawa during World War II when the Island served as a defensive barrier between Japan and U.S. warships; the Okinawan spirit world, led by spirits called kami.
This book is the story of two young women and is narrated in their voices. The first, Luz James, is a military brat (a term she uses to describe herself), daughter of a single mother. Luz’s world has been torn apart by her older sister’s unexpected enlistment in the Air Force and her death in Afghanistan. She is responding to her sorrow with drug use and risk-taking, common pastimes among her two groups of friends: the “Quasi” crowd composed of other military brats (quasi because that’s the only sort of friendship one can establish with the constant moves of military life) and the Smokinawans, the local stoners.
The second young woman is Tamiko Kokuba, an Okinawan originally a fanatical supporter of Japan (many Okinawans at the time considered it a compliment to be mistaken for Japanese), who works in the cave hospitals set up on the island for the Japanese forces, and who, pregnant at age fifteen after being raped by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, chooses to commit suicide. Okinawan custom requires recovery of the body and regular tending to the remaining bones in order to to have a life after death. Because she has committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea and her body was never recovered, Tamiko and her unknown child have been unable to move on. Their spirits await guidance by the kami, hoping the kami will provide them with a body whose spirit they can displace, which will allow them to move on to the afterlife. Tamiko spends the years as a waiting spirit by recounting her life story to her unborn child.
Luz and Tamiko’s paths cross in both literal and spiritual senses as Luz contemplates suicide and Tamiko waits for a body to house her spirit. At several moments I was sure I’d guessed how these two different crises would be resolved, but Bird’s nuanced story-telling keeps adding complexity to the narrative, taking it to deeper, richer places than I’d imagined.
I don’t want to say more than this because readers deserve the pleasure of following the several paths of this novel without having parts of the narrative revealed ahead of time. Whatever your preferred genre—history, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, mystery, fantasy—Above the East China Sea offers a satisfying read that will stay with you long after you close the book.