For this event, I read Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara.
This novel is the first in a series of mysteries that feature Mas Arai, a Japanese-American gardener who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Now in his twilight years and living in California, he must come to terms with his past as mysterious events unfold in the present. When Mas learns that a man called Joji Haneda has died, he thinks about bachi. For those who don’t know what bachi is — I didn’t — the book begins with this explanation:
Mas Arai didn’t believe in Jesus or Buddha, but thought there might be something in bachi. In Japanese, bachi was when you snapped at your wife, and then tripped on a rock in the driveway. You didn’t suffer your punishment in another lifetime, but within the same life, even within the next few minutes.
It’s a type of karmic retribution, and it’s coming for Mas.
This mystery — not that his novel squarely fits into the genre — was challenging to follow, but what made it worth reading was its portrayal of a Hiroshima survivor still reeling from the trauma of the bomb:
Death was easy, but Mas and Haruo had been cursed with surviving. To take your own life was an insult to the dead—like stealing a medal and wearing it proudly over your shirt pocket. No matter how bad things got, you had to just wait and hope that someone or something else would cut you down, clearly and swiftly, like pulling weeds out from the ground.
Mas is a sympathetic character with a compelling personal story. He works for himself, lives alone in his old age, and hangs out with a group of colorful friends who are also connected to the man known as Joji Haneda.
Many of the characters, including Mas, speak broken English — for example, “What youzu know about dis guy, anyway?” — that I could only accept because the author is Japanese-American. There’s a fine line between an authentic portrayal of spoken English in an immigrant community and a caricature of it, but I think Hirahara pulls it off in a respectful manner. I’m curious to know how others who have read this book reacted to it.
Would it be different if it hadn’t been #ownvoices? I think so.