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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #37 (September 7, 2004), page 16.

Endure the unendurable

One Hundred Million Hearts

By Kerri Sakamoto

Harcourt, 2004

Hardcover, 279 pages, $23.00

By Josephine Bridges

Mysteries run beneath Kerri Sakamoto’s One Hundred Million Hearts like dark currents, but not the kind of mysteries found in whodunits. The central mystery is ultimately solved, but others linger after the narrative has drawn to a close. It’s an unsettling, uneven novel, and it feels a lot like real life.

We learn a great deal about Miyo and her father, Masao, in the very first paragraph. Masao, born in Vancouver, was sent to school in Japan, where he "learned to shoot a rifle, lunge with his bayonet and march the perimeter of Okayama Second Middle School." But he never spoke Japanese to his daughter, who narrates the first chapter of the novel, "except to count ichi ni to me, one two, when I woke up in the middle of the night afraid, which rarely happens these days."

Miyo, who has a variety of unspecified disabilities, tells David, the man who will become her lover, that her mother died in an accident, "not long after I was born … I don’t tell him that I was the accident." Miyo lives with her father in Toronto as the book opens. When Masao has a car accident and Miyo must take the subway to work for the first time, she gets caught in the closing door of the train, and David rescues her. David has an inkling that there’s something strange about her father’s service in the Japanese army, and this becomes the book’s primary mystery.

When Miyo’s father dies, Miyo learns that Setsuko, who lived for a time with the father and daughter, was Masao’s wife, and that the couple have a daughter, Hana, who lives in Tokyo. Most of One Hundred Million Hearts takes place in Japan, and there the passionate sisterhood that erupts between Miyo and Hana becomes the center of the novel.

Kerri Sakamoto has written her second novel with a shifting point of view. While first-person narrative occurs only in the first chapter, there’s a limited omniscient point of view that conveys the world not only through Miyo’s eyes, but also through Setsuko’s. The author also writes from the perspective of Koji "Buddy" Kuroda, another Japanese Canadian who befriended Masao in Manchuria and spent five years in prison for war crimes, and that of Buddy’s wife Kiku, whose first fiancé, Hajime, was a kamikaze who perished more than half a century earlier.

A series of letters written by Hajime is the novel’s most remarkable feature. Though the writer of these letters died in the Second World War, his letters give the reader a glimpse into an extraordinary human being. In one of his letters to Kiku he includes a map of Japan he has drawn in response to a mysterious "Map of Tenderness" in a French book that has been taken away from him. He writes, "That is what I’ve drawn Kiku. A map of the feelings between us, so that when I fly through the clouds, perhaps for my final sortie, I’ll look down and see you and me and the love that Stendhal wrote of, that crystallized between us, and the path it took."

It’s tough slogging through the middle of One Hundred Million Hearts, which is occupied by a lot of characters the reader doesn’t get to know very well and considerable activity that doesn’t lead much of anywhere. The beginning and the end, however, are riveting, and worth the trouble. By the time she or he learns the "bad things" Masao did during wartime, the reader has developed such compassion for this man who, among many others, had to "endure the unendurable" during and in the aftermath of war, that the terrible secret itself seems only terribly sad.

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