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From The Asian Reporter, V21, #23 (December 5, 2011), page 15.
It could change the world
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
By Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books, 2009
Paperback, 301 pages, $15.00
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
There are books that create worlds so wide and broad and deep, so multifaceted, so full of surprises and possibilities, that they seem at least as authentic as what we call the real world, at times perhaps even more so. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is such a book. Jamie Ford’s characters are ordinary people portrayed with extraordinary sympathy, sharing terrain at the intersection of actuality and imagination with luminous objects that seem on the verge of lives of their own. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is also, despite its complex and often troubling subject matter, a stunningly easy read.
The narrative begins and ends in 1986, yet dips back in time to the years between 1942 and 1945. By using a simple strategy of noting the year below the title of each chapter, the author ensures his readers never get lost.
The hotel of the title is Seattle’s Panama Hotel, where Chinese-American protagonist Henry Lee stands in a crowd at the book’s opening and learns that the belongings of 37 Japanese families have been discovered in the basement. Henry, it turns out, knew one of those families four decades earlier, and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is on one level the sweet story of his first love.
On another level, the novel is bitter history brought to life. Set in Seattle in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and in two war relocation centers for people of Japanese ancestry who were all suddenly under suspicion, it is a dark tale of bigotry and greed.
But Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is more than love and history, and where it dazzles most is in the questions it provokes and muses on but leaves to the reader to answer. Henry and his father each deceive one another, yet one of these deceptions seems almost noble while the other is disturbing, if not despicable. Why? Henry is filled with doubt through most of the novel, yet he behaves decisively and even bravely. How? Individual human beings are shown side by side with broad, sweeping, fear-based generalizations about them. Who is the enemy? Is there really an enemy at all?
Jamie Ford is not only a keen observer of his species, he also has an eye for significant objects: a suit laid out on a bed, a rare jazz recording, a button that reads "I Am Chinese." Asked where he got the idea for the book, the author credits just such a button his father wore when he was a boy.
And sparkling in all this depth is humor. Henry’s father forbids him to speak Cantonese at home, though the man doesn’t understand English. "I’m going to open an umbrella in my pants," says Henry in reply to his father’s morning greeting. When he visits his sweetheart’s family at Minidoka, he learns of a shooting there and isn’t sure which makes him more nervous: "that his being here was part of a formal courtship, which he supposed it was, or that someone had been shot."
It’s a pity this novel has to end at all, and I am probably not the only reader who has flipped from the last page right back to the first and read it all over again. But the ending is as splendid as the rest of the book, and those 25 years since 1986 shimmer with possibility.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a work of such wisdom and compassion that if enough people read it, it could change the world. Jamie Ford has done his part, and done it brilliantly. The rest is up to us.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the topic of discussion at an upcoming Pageturners event scheduled on Friday, December 16 from 10:00 to 11:00am at Rockwood Library, located at17917 S.E. Stark Street in Portland. To learn more, call (503) 988-5396 or visit <events.multcolib.org>.