Picking Bones From Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett
31 January, 2011
I don’t know how I came across Marie Mutsuki Mockett. It may have been while I was surfing the web for something half-Japanese. I read her creative non-fiction essay and liked what she wrote. And of course I was interested in her story. I think I’m perpetually searching for experiences that may be akin to mine. But what I’m always reminded about is that although there are always certain experiences us mixed folk share, there are also huge historical, cultural and familial differences that are naturally inherent in all families. So it makes for interesting reading.
Picking Bones From Ash is Mockett’s first novel and it is an impressive one. I keep going on about how impressive the prose is for a first time novelist but if you’ve read as many books as I have (and I’m sure a fair number of you have and probably more!) you get this certain tingling feeling when you come across writing that is almost perfect. And Mockett’s style certainly is. It surprised me that this was her first book. I didn’t really know what to expect, maybe something similar to Ishiguro’s early novels. I really wanted to fit in one last novel for the Japanese Literary Challenge 4 and I’m really glad I got to finish this because it’s a beautiful book and I want to share it with you all.
Picking Bones From Ash is about Satomi and her daughter Rumi and the relationship between mothers and daughters. Mockett writes about Satomi and her mother Akiko in the 1960s as Japan is adjusting to post-war changes. Akiko, beautiful, husbandless and with a daughter to support, runs a small bar that serves food that caters mainly for the men in a small town. She is determined that her daughter will nurture her musical talent and makes sure that she competes and wins piano contests. Satomi duly enters Tokyo’s most prestigious music college all the while battling with her mother who somehow manages to manipulate events to fit her dreams. Mockett deftly shows the complex and difficult relationship between a strong mother determined that her daughter be successful and a talented daughter who craves acknowledgement and love. Things aren’t smooth, however, as Akiko re-marries to secure their future and Satomi must adjust to life with her two step-sisters. Another complication arises when Satomi falls in love with Masayoshi, once again complicating her mother’s plans. And when she goes abroad to Paris to study, her life changes completely when she meets Timothy Snowden. Then Mockett surprises us by cutting to Satomi’s daughter Rumi, living and running an antiques business in the States with her father, François. As Snowden once again intrudes into their lives, Rumi goes to Japan to meet Masayoshi, who is now the head of a Buddhist Temple, and find out what happened to her mother, Satomi.
I really liked the way Mockett stops and starts the story, chopping up Satomi and Rumi’s history so that you are never quite sure how the tale will evolve. There were many surprising revelations and I especially loved the bit about what happens to Satomi. The characters are all certainly unconventional and although I didn’t like the male characters much (I felt both Snowden and François to be rather unreliable and creepy), they contrasted well with the strong female characters.
Although Mockett is half-Japanese, you can see that she writes not as a Japanese (or how Ishiguro attempted to write A Pale View of Hills) yet her sensibility is that of a Japanese, especially her attention to detail and her gentle approach to explaining Japanese mythology and culture. For a debut novelist, who often tries to cram everything into their first novel, this is a restrained, yet fully-fledged and complete novel. Mockett’s prose is self-assured and it’s hard to believe that this is her first real attempt.
I didn’t want to rush this novel. The pacing was just right, and when I cam to the end, I felt a clutch of regret that my journey was over. I liked the way Mockett arranged the novel, the way I couldn’t see how the story was going to unfurl. It’s an atypical novel by a writer trying to find her roots (and you know how much I loved reading diasporic and mixed authors’ work).
And Mockett’s way with words is simply beautiful – her descriptions are so visual and lovely. Here are two examples:
Outside, the cherry blossoms dissolved like sugar in the heavy rain of spring.
Picture two equally matched sumo wrestlers leaning against each other in a ring deep below the earth’s surface, and you have an idea of the forces that have shaped Japan.
And I love the way she described the manga character Rose as ‘drawn with a characteristic halo of long blond hair and large, big, star-spangled eyes’. So apt.
So I strongly urge you to give Mockett’s Picking Bones From Ash a try while I eagerly await her next novel.