"On the fifth anniversary of my father's death, my mother confessed to his murder." Thus begins Nora Okja Keller's breathtaking first novel, which follows Beccah, a young Korean-American girl growing up in Hawaii, as she uncovers the secret of her mother's past. Completely ignorant of her mother Akiko's history - she was sold into prostitution in the Japanese "recreation camps" of World War II for her oldest sister's dowry - Beccah understands that her mother lives in a spirit world she cannot share, and that clearly marks her as "other." Narrated in two voices, Beccah's and Akiko's, Keller reveals the story of Akiko's extraordinary dislocation - the slavery of the camps, the death of her first child, her unhappy marriage to an American missionary - which Beccah understands only after her mother's death. In language that is both harsh and lyrical, Keller explores the universally complicated relationship between mother and daughter. She shows us both Akiko's way of survival, sustained by her remarkable strength and her love for her daughter, and Beccah's acceptance of her mother and her own place in a world her mother no longer physically inhabits.
This impressive first novel by a Hawaii-based writer of mixed Korean and American ancestry depicts one of the atrocities of war and its lingering effects on a later generation. An intense study of a mother-daughter relationship, it dwells simultaneously in the world of spirits and the social milieu of the adolescent schoolgirl who later becomes a career woman with lovers. Beccah is a youngish, contemporary Hawaiian whose Korean mother, Akiko, was sold into prostitution as a young woman and sent to a "recreation camp'' to service the occupying Japanese army. Akiko developed a resilience that allowed her to distance herself from the daily plundering of her body; she also developed an intense communication with the spirit world that helped her survive the horror of her experience-and helped her, too, to catch the attention of a visiting American missionary, who married her and fathered Beccah. After his death, mother and daughter live together in Honolulu, Beccah striving for a normal life, Akiko, often possessed, screaming and wailing, by her ghosts and visions. With the help of a flamboyant, ultra-worldly friend who calls herself Auntie Reno, Akiko becomes a seer and fortune-teller. Akiko's flashbacks to her haunted past and Beccah's account of their lives together are told alternately, and it is one of Keller's several triumphs that she is able to render the two worlds so powerfully and distinctly. Though piercing and moving in its evocation of feminine closeness, however, the narrative becomes somewhat claustrophobic, so that the occasional interventions of the cheerfully vulgar Auntie Reno are hugely welcome. A striking debut by a strongly gifted writer, nonetheless. Author tour. (Apr.)