The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel_on_the_Corner_of_Bitter_and_Sweet_coverHenry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol. This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept. Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

This is one of those books that I’ve heard people talk about a lot recently. Set in Settle during World War 2 (I seem to read a lot of books set during that era) it shows the war in America from the perspective of two children, specifically children of Chinese and Japanese descent. During the war China was an ally while of course Japan was the enemy with those of Japanese descent interned in camps.

While I’m familiar enough with war in Europe, I’m not that familiar with the American side of things. I knew of course America entered the war after Pearl Harbour and that anyone of Japanese origin was interned in camps but beyond these broad strokes that was pretty much it. In that respect I found this book quite interesting as it provides some greater detail on the period. However overall I’m not sure it lives up to the hype. It’s a sweet story.It’s well written and it certainly kept me sufficiently captivated to read it in a single day (though it’s only about 250 pages so it’s not exactly hard to read in a day if you’ve the time). For all this however I can’t say I loved it. It’s not a book that will stay with me or that I’ll be recommending to everyone. I think my problem is the idea of showing the war through the eyes of a child isn’t exactly new. The Book Thief, The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas or indeed All the Light we Cannot See have all done it before, and this book failed to bring anything new beyond a change in setting (America instead of Europe). It also I think fails to execute it as strongly as those books. The Book Thief and The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas in particular used the child narrator to great and heart wrenching effect, something I never felt here.

All in all its a sweet book and a good holiday read but I’m not sure I can say more than that.


3 star

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