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"A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding" by Jackie Copleton

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Familial love, betrayal, and secrets drive the elegant A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding. The narrative is placed mostly in Japan and spans the middle of the 20th Century - from the mid 1930s on. Wrenching and life-changing events befall all the characters, of course, and the changes are both outward and inward. This book demonstrates very clearly author Jackie Copleton’s mastery of human striving and emotion, and also her easy conversance with Japanese culture and language. It is stunning, effective stuff.

First-person protagonist Amaterasu Takahashi sustains loss after loss within these pages, her sorest loss being the death of her daughter in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. And her daughter Yuko, while alive, also causes Amaterasu her deepest worry. She - Yuko - falls for her father’s physician friend, Sato, when only sixteen, and nearly throws her life away for what she believes is love. Amaterasu does everything in her power, not hesitating to deceive and manipulate everyone around her to gain her ends. After the war she and her husband move to America, escaping all the nightmarish family and civic trauma, and she settles into a quiet routine toward the end of her life, with whiskey for company. But then she must face unexpected connections that wake unwanted memories.

Ms. Copleton leads off each chapter with a Japanese word or phrase, and explains its significance to that society’s life and culture. The words often depict traits that are admired in Japan, and words that have a variety of meanings, often in subtle shades and nuances. These vocabulary entries, the “Dictionary” of the title, focus our attention freshly on the characters as events shape and reshape them. But there is a startling and very pleasing extra meaning in “mutual understanding,” one which drives and has driven our dour heroine from page one.


Also, the book has a structure and pace to it that further demonstrate the author’s skill. Amaterasu reluctantly takes out Yuko’s diaries after unexpected events late in her life, and as we read these entries alongside her, she imagines for us the scene and intervening events with a second voice. These juxtapositions, taking place in the plot when they do, affect us with a powerful sense of this author’s elegant conception and execution, and I find her strategy beautiful, a joy to engage.

Take this book up, certainly. Live for a time inside the consciousness of a strong woman who frets and works for those she loves. A gem - startlingly good and memorable.

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