Kyoto 1978. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford feels like an outsider when she returns to Japan for the first time in five years, to stay with her mother's family. As Sarah begins to reacquaint herself with her relatives and learn more about the culture she came from, she discovers a secret that stretches across three generations, its presence looming over the family home. She quickly learns that personal boundaries are firmly drawn in traditional Kyoto, and actions are not always what they appear ...
When Liz offered me a chance to review this book I couldn't wait. I love books on Japan; when I first read Memoirs of a Geisha I thought it was an autobiography (shh, don't tell anyone!).To cover up my mortification I read Mineko Iwasaki's book Geisha of Gion and by this point I was addicted to the genre. The Favourites covers a period from 1978 to 1988 which, like Geisha of Gion, depicts a time of massive change. Japan is wrestling with tradition and the influx of Western ways that seem to affect everything from food to behaviour.
Sarah is a child of mixed race; half Japanese and half American. Upon her return with her Japanese mother on a family visit she feels her differences keenly. She's a plucky and sensitive heroine who barely recognises her mother, Yoko, once they arrive to Japan. The author shows us through Sarah's memories how she argues with her mother back in America over fitting in, wearing the right clothes and eating Western food. Once in Japan, Sarah realises that her mother is regarded as successful, a member of the elite and full of confidence. We watch Sarah question herself as she sees the close relationship between Yoko and her mother.
Sarah has more to learn too. Her Grandmother's sister-in-law lives in an adjoining house with her daughter and two grand-daughters. These close relations lead to a complex ritual of behaviour and hide a family secret. As this secret is revealed and played out we watch Sarah change from a child to maturity dealing with the difficult realities of being both a stranger in her homeland and at odds with the structured rules of etiquette. We jump ahead twice in the novel; once by four years and then again by six. It is these changes in time that make the book so beautiful and bitter sweet. As Japan changes and Sarah grows we see the complex family ties from different angles.
Apart from the gorgeous language the structure is stunning too. We go from season to season with changes in flowers, food and table ware which is mirrored in the characters going through the various seasons in their life. We move backwards and forwards through the aid of photo albums that Sarah flips through to reminiscences from the older characters. This must have been well planned but it flows in a way that makes you appreciate it without it feeling contrived.
I can't do justice to this book in my review; it's a perfectly structured rare thing. I can't remember when I read a book that contained such beautiful writing that it gave me a lump in my throat. From the descriptions of the different meals and types of fish, the changing seasons that match perfectly with the ageing characters to the self-realisation of Sarah herself. The whole thing is stunning, just read it and see.