Thursday, February 04, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry 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.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

I am not sure why it is, but I really love to read books that are set against a background of war. Some of the most memorable books I have read have been set against either WWI or WWII, and so when I see a new book getting good reviews that have either of these settings, I am very likely to add it to my TBR list. So it was with Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, firstly because of its setting and secondly the title and the cover which are both pretty eye catching.

I do also enjoy books where there is dual storyline. In this case, the central character is Henry Lee. When we first meet Henry, he is a widower whose wife died from cancer six months before. He had retired early from his job to care for her, and now finds himself a little lost in his life. One day he is out walking when he sees a crowd around a hotel that has been closed down for many years and is currently being redeveloped. He learns that there has been a discovery in the basement. It was packed with the belongings of many Japanese-American families who were interred in camps during WWII. When he sees a painted parasol, his own memories of those days are reawakened. He has strived hard to not remember those events, avoiding the part of the city which used to be the Japanese quarter, so this reawakening is in some ways painful.

When he was 12 years old, Henry was a boy who attended a prestigious white school on scholarship. Because his fiercely patriotic Chinese father was concerned about Henry being mistaken as a Japanese boy, he is forced to wear a badge saying 'I am Chinese'. The only other Asian at the school is Keiko, a Japanese-American girl. As one of the terms of their scholarship the two children are forced to work together in the school kitchen, and gradually forge a strong friendship, initially because they can face the school bullies together, but also because of a common interest in Jazz music. Henry's father would be horrified to know that his son has a Japanese friend because of the Japanese invasion of China that preceded their attack on Pearl Harbour.

As the internment of Japanese families commences, Henry is horrified to learn that his friend Keiko is one of the people who is to be put into the internment camp, despite the fact that she was born in America and can not speak Japanese, and he will do anything he can possibly do to maintain his connection to her.

This was an enjoyable book. I really enjoyed the development of the friendship between the two main young characters, and thought that there were some very well developed secondary characters, especially Sheldon, the African-American jazz musicians who Henry gives his lunch to every day in exchange for a few cents, and also Mrs Beatty who facilitates the maintained contact between the two of them even after Keiko's family is moved away from Seattle.

I also really enjoyed how Seattle was portrayed in this novel. I have never been there, but after reading about the various parts of the city, I wanted to go. It is also obvious that Jamie Ford loves jazz music, and I liked the way that the rare record that Henry starts to search for was the catalyst for change within several different relationships in his life.

One of the things that I did really like in this novel was the study of the relationship between Henry and his son, not only as a standalone relationship but also as a reflection of Henry's own relationship with his father, and as magnified through the stress of watching someone that they both loved suffer through the pain of cancer. For so long, Henry's wife Ethel had been the conduit through which Henry and Marty communicated so they had to learn a whole new way of dealing with each other once she had passed on. So often you see that despite the best of intentions children make the same mistakes their own parents made without even realising it. I liked that there was some growth in the relationship between Henry and his son, particularly after Henry surprises Marty and his white fiancee by revealing the secrets of his past.

If there was one thing that didn't really work for me, it is the idea that the Henry and Keiko could be in love at the age of 12 or 13. The relationship wasn't physical, but whether the depth of that connection could occur is a different matter. Maybe that is because my son is very nearly that age and I can't imagine him being anywhere near old enough to form such a strong relationship, or maybe it is because I am thinking about the 12 or 13 year old boys who I knew - I'd rather not actually.

America is not the only country where the incarceration of groups of people happened just because they had Japanese or German ancestry. It's hard to believe that if the same thing was to happen in this day and age that there wouldn't be a huge outcry, but it is surprising that more people aren't aware that these events were taking place just 60 years ago. It isn't that long ago really.

Whilst I did have a couple of issues with the book, I am glad that I read it and I will definitely be looking out for the author's next book, and I guess that that really is recommendation in itself. I gave this book a rating of 4/5.

I borrowed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet from the library in preparation for participation in the TLC Book Tours blog tour for this book over at Historical Tapestry.This review was originally posted at Historical Tapestry on 1 February.

By the way, we are giving away a copy of this book over at Historical Tapestry. Click on the link to enter!


  1. I hate to admit this but I've never been a fan of any magazines, novels, dvd's if it's all about battles, war and etc. Some may find it exciting while i find it boring. But reading your post, i have this sudden excitement to read the said novel (or is a novel?). I have never been curious especially with the kind of topic i will be getting at but right now, i wanna go to the library and read it. :)

  2. Hey 4/5 aint that bad. I like how you portrait the inside out of this book. I think you have just convinced me to add this into my TBR. Thanks Marg - excellent review once again!

  3. Be sure to head over to Historical Tapestry and put your name in the hat to win a copy of this book!

    Janet, for me, I love to read about the relationships that develop against the background of war. I don't mind the occasional battle, but mostly it is about the relationships.

    Hope you get to read it Natalie.

  4. I bought a copy of this book a few months ago, and have been trying to get my book club to read it because I think it would make for great discussion. I also agree that books set in and around war are fascinating, but the ones I like best are the ones that relay how a people and a culture survive during a war. Great review, even this was not a perfect read for you, it still sounds as though you liked it quite a bit!

  5. I really like books set around war, too, especially ones that take place away from the fighting. I have The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society to read soon and I think this one I'd enjoy a lot, too. I would like to gain more perspective on the Japanese internment.

  6. I read your review over at HT and thought the book sounds something I might like even if the subject is one I mightn't be drawn to at first.

    Its been a week of awards so very happy to pass one on to you.

  7. Thanks so much for the award Cat!

    Aarti, you are in for a treat! Guernsey is such a great book!

    Zibilee, I think that this book would be good for a book club read. Hope you get to read it soon.

  8. I liked this novel, but I had issues with the shifts from present to past because I found the past more engaging than the present.