Friday, October 14, 2022

Review: Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

I've never been much of a tv watcher but even I have seen an episode or two of soap operas over the years. They aren't really my thing but I think what keeps people tuning in every day is the pace of the story, the complications, the constant drama, secrets and their shocking reveals, love, and of course, their outlandishness, all of which serve to take the viewer away from their quotidian life. Asha Lemmie's debut novel, Fifty Words for Rain, is the book version of a soap opera and it has garnered its share of supporters and detractors, just as the tv shows do. I have to admit though, that if I have no interest in tv soap operas, I am only marginally more interested in book soap operas.

Opening in 1948, eight year old Noriko, the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of a Japanese aristocratic mother and a black American GI, is left at the gate of her aristocratic grandparents' home by her mother. Jumping then to two years later, Nori is living in her grandparents' attic, her mother's shame made visible kept hidden and out of sight of everyone outside the family. She is given harsh chemical baths to try and lighten her skin and she has come to understand that her curly hair and complexion are terrible, something no Japanese person would ever value. She is treated badly by her grandmother when she deigns to see Nori and neglected when she doesn't. When her older half brother, Akira, who is her mother's legitimate son and the heir to her wealthy grandparents, comes to live in the house after the death of his father, Nori, for the first time, finds an ally. She is obsessed with her brother and he convinces their grandmother to grant Nori privileges that she has never before been allowed. But this sibling bond can't be allowed to stand and Nori is sold off to a brothel the family owns while her brother is away at school. This is not the last terrible thing that happens to Nori as she goes from trauma to trauma, often at the hands of her bigoted, evil family.

From the opening pages, Nori is an obedient child who faces every bad thing possible: abandonment, abuse--physical, emotional and sexual, isolation, racism, loss and more. Eventually the reader has to wonder just how many terrible things and tragedies must be thrown at Nori to show her resilience as a character. And given all of the soul destroying events in her life at the hands of her grandmother, it makes the end of the novel completely out of character and ridiculously unbelievable. But even from the beginning the novel is unbelievable. It starts with something that calls into question the accuracy of its entire portrayal of post-war Japan. Nori is supposed to be 8 in 1948. That would put her American GI father in Japan in either 1939 or 1940 in order for her to exist. Even a quick internet search suggests that this would have been well night impossible. But Nori needs to be half black and half Japanese in order for the story to work. Pure invented melodrama, especially when added to the litany of traumas she faces throughout her life. The novel does crack on at a decent clip making a close to 500 page book a quick read, so for those interested in a soap-like survival story or trauma porn, this might be the right book. Certainly a lot of other authors and readers have loved it in ways that I didn't.

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