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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #49 (December 6, 2005), page 13.
A thoughtful mystery
By Naomi Hirahara
Paperback, 287 pages, $12.00
By Josephine Bridges
Although the title of this book refers to the protagonistís daughter, a curmudgeonly Hiroshima survivor named Mas Arai is at the center of Gasa-Gasa Girl. Naomi Hirahara introduced Mas to readers in her first novel, Summer of the Big Bachi, and Iíll bet Iím not the only reader whoís hoping for a long, long series of Mas Arai mysteries.
A Kibei, born in the U.S. but raised in Japan, Mas canít quite get comfortable anywhere, though his first few hours in New York are making him long for Los Angeles, where heís made his home for decades. But Masís daughter Mari has asked for her fatherís help, and "if he didnít come through this time, he would probably never get the chance again." Yet now that heís arrived, his son-in-law Lloyd isnít sure where Mari and their baby son are.
This is the first in a series of small mysteries, some of which are never solved. For example, the first thing that catches Masís eye when he arrives at his daughterís residence ó which he thinks of consistently as the "underground apartment" ó is "a set of wooden stairs that led not to a door or a room, but to another wall." Mas never learns the story of these stairs, and neither does the reader.
Gardening is a theme that winds through Gasa-Gasa Girl, and the Japanese garden where Lloyd works, as "a no-good gardener, just like Mas," turns out to be a crime scene when Mas finds the body of Lloydís boss in a koi pond. Later, Mas stops to watch a man digging near a little pond, and the man asks if Mas is interested in gardening. Mas doesnít know how to answer. "He had been doing it for more than forty years, but he honestly didnít know how interested he was in it." Still, when Mas is in need of an equalizer, he grabs "the first weapon he could find, a state-of-the-art hedge clipper."
The way the protagonist looks at the world is one of the great pleasures of this novel. Mas notices everything, and he isnít impressed with much of it. He observes that the clerk at a convenience store "looked respectable," then comes to the conclusion that "he was meant for better work than he was doing." Mas is equally underwhelmed by the spiritual: "He figured religion ran in someoneís family like diabetes and thinning hair." Mas does have a way with the startling simile: a man speaks "easily, words dripping out like oil from a leaky engine." And heís no slouch at describing hues, either. A necktie is "the color of a sea urchinís guts" and a womanís fingernails "the color of garden snails."
Beneath Masís prickly exterior are marvelous and troubling dreams that give him depth. The reader learns early on that Mari "has nightmares but canít remember any of them. She says it runs in the family." But some of Masís dreams are memorable indeed. "Dozens of minicrabs descended on Masís body from cracks in the floor, the walls, the ceilings." When Mas muses on the term "hiring freeze," he dreams of "ice, Eskimos, and igloos. There was a hole in a frozen lake, where penguins, one after another, seemed to slip and fall right in." And when Masís grandson Takeoís arms and legs jerk while the boy sleeps, Mas wonders "what kind of nightmares a baby could have."
One of the best things a thoughtful mystery can do is increase our cultural awareness and make the experience a pleasant one. There are many examples in Gasa-Gasa Girl, but Iíll choose one that expands Masís grasp of the world he lives in. Early in the narrative, Mas scoffs inwardly at his son-in-lawís interest in the Japanese- American community. "Why would a hakujin person want to be anything other than hakujin?" But when Mas goes to visit the site of Seabrook Farms, a New Jersey alternative to World War II internment camps, he discovers that among the workers there were a lot of Estonians, who escaped from the Soviets, the Germans, and the Soviets again in fishing boats. "Hakujin boat people?" he asks, astonished at first. But it doesnít take him long to see it in a new light. "People were running away from their troubles any way they could. It didnít matter if you were black, Asian, Latino, or even hakujin."
Come back soon, Mas.