Books: A Japanese lover for Isabel Allende
Fiction: The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende, Scribner, tpbk, 400 pages, €17.99
The bestselling Chilean author Isabel Allende is a force to be reckoned with. Her books have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. Everything she writes turns into a bestseller, from fiction to memoirs to young adult fiction. She writes strong female characters, is not afraid to expose personal liberal politics and believes in good manners. All three are present here in her latest novel, The Japanese Lover.
It begins in a progressive Californian care community, Lark House, as a young Moldovan immigrant, Irina Bazili, starts working with an older population of mostly "left-wing intellectuals, oddballs, and second-rate artists".
Irina displays an innocent openness but much is going on beneath the surface. She is tightly self-contained and is clearly shrouding a dark secret. But Irina gradually emerges from her shell when she is hired by the formidable and highly successful artist Alma Belasco to be her secretary.
In something of a contrived twist, Alma wants Irina to help her organise her old photographs and letters and this begins the second narrative strand as we go back to Alma's turbulent childhood.
Indeed, Alma is herself no stranger to secrets. In 1939, her Polish-Jewish parents realised they were in danger and sent their seven-year-old daughter to live with her wealthy American uncle and aunt in San Francisco. This led to Alma meeting two boys who would become the loves of her life: her cousin Nathaniel and the Japanese gardener's son, Ichimei Fukuda.
Alma is instantly drawn to the quiet and focused eight-year-old Ichimei and his passion for plants. But they are soon separated after Pearl Harbour, when Ichimei and his family are sent with tens of thousands of Japanese to internment camps. The Fukudas are transferred to Topaz in the barren Utah desert and Ichimei and Alma continue to communicate through letters and Ichimei's detailed drawings.
Allende's habitual theme of displacement, and the subsequent feeling of not belonging, are certainly at the heart of this very readable epic romance. She is also known for her use of magic realism, but that is less evident here. Indeed, there is a distinct softening of tone and it is instead somewhat fantastic, the lives too idealised, the loves too pure. There is not the necessary shading, even though the issues Allende explores are at times intense and include concentration-camp life, racism, sexual abuse and a well-handled exploration of ageing.
Allende writes in Spanish and her long-time translator, and thereby collaborator, was Margaret Sayers Peden, who worked on such classic books as Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia. And the importance of the relationship between a writer and their translator cannot be underestimated. This explains why the International Dublin Literary Award splits the prize between them, in recognition of the delicate dance a translator must do to keep the original spirit and melody of the words alive.
Sadly, Allende and Peden's partnership ended in 2009 with the novel Island Beneath the Sea. Allende has since worked with a number of different translators and this new novel has been translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, with less success.
Allende's secret ingredient may have been lost in translation this time, diluting her words into easy accessible Americanese and by doing so, lessening the impact of her intelligent outsider's eye. The Japanese Lover comes acress as a sepia-tinged romance.