Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I first came across Jennifer Cody Epstein's fiction with her wonderful novel The Painter From Shanghai about a little known (at least in this country) Chinese artist. This newest novel is not centered on an historical figure so much as on the often forgotten or overlooked American bombing raids on Tokyo during World War II. When most people think of the Asian theater of the war, they concentrate on Hiroshima and Nagaskai or the bloody battle for Okinawa. They don't typically consider the fact that the US fire-bombed Tokyo, not once but twice, reducing a large swath of the city to rubber and killing 100,000 civilians in mere hours. But Epstein has brought this fact home through her cast of characters and in particular in the character of young Yoshi Kobayashi and her various degrees of connection to people on both sides of the war.

Starting in 1935 before jumping to 1942 and then onwards through the war and into the aftermath, the reader is introduced to and given background information on several of the interconnected characters in the story. First there is the college-aged Cam Richards as he sits atop a stalled ferris wheel with Lacey, who will become his wife. He is a quiet, sweet, thoughtful, and good looking young man who fought hard to overcome a terrible childhood stutter and the disappointment of his father and whose love of airplanes and the concept of flight will soon lead him to become a pilot. A world away in Japan, architect Anton Reynolds, his wife Beryl, and their sensitive and artistic son Billy are hosting a Japanese couple, master builder Kenji Kobayashi, his glamorous, London-educated wife Hana and their young daughter Yoshi, who will become the center through whom all the other characters connect. Anton is living and working in Japan designing major public buildings in Tokyo. Seduced by the Japanese aesthetic as much as by the lost and depressed Hana, he becomes an expert in Japanese building while Kenji Kobayashi builds Anton's visions and then takes his knowledge to Manchuria after the Japanese invasion there, leaving Yoshi and Hana behind.

In 1942, after participating in the foolhardy Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Cam Richards, whose newly pregnant wife anxiously awaits him at home, has to bail out of his plane. His discovery, unconscious in a field in Manchuria, by Kenji Kobayashi starts weaving the connections between all of the characters until the war has wrapped them all in a terrible web of conflict, hatred, and destruction. Through the ensuing two decades, the characters all play their parts in the war, from Anton who builds Japanese tenaments in the Utah desert to help the US perfect its firebombing raids to Kenji who builds Japanese villages in occupied Manchuria using captured Chinese workers, from Yoshi who survives the horror of firebombing but loses everyone she cares about to Billy who is sent to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the war as a translator and who hides a crippling secret of his own.

Epstein has created an unflinching look at the devastation wrought by war both physically and emotionally through the lives of her characters. She captures the lost innocence, the brutality and inhumanity of war, the way that person turns against person, friend against friend, country against country. But she's also tapped into the human component and the strain on conscience when planning or carrying out the atrocities of war. There are varying perspectives on rightness and whether everything is in fact fair in war plus the impact it all takes on the various characters.  She doesn't shy away from the horrors but in the end, allows several of her characters to achieve resolution and grace. Thoroughly researched and exquisitely rendered, this is a gripping look at the cost both in people and in place that we extract over and over again when we go to war. World War II buffs and other historical fiction lovers will enjoy this gripping and conflicted look at our not too distant past.

For more information about Jennifer Cody Epstein and the book check out her website, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this sounds like a wonderfully written and moving story. I'm a huge fan of WWII stories so this one is going on my list.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


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