“Book Review: In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow”
Reviewed by Samantha Hui
In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow speculates that what follows us after death are not traditions or resentment but love and regrets.
Kenneth Harmon gifts us with a historical fiction, magical realism odyssey that explores the individual effects of and reactions to World War II. The novel follows a U.S. bombardier named Micah and a Japanese widow named Kiyomi as they try to survive the tumultuous world around them. Filled with love, history, and Japanese folklore, this novel is sure to please anyone with an interest in well-told stories.
The novel switches perspectives between Micah and Kiyomi, giving its audience an equal amount of time with both characters. We first meet Micah as he shares his disdain for the Japanese, whom he blames for the deaths of his brother and mother. And yet, he still drops leaflets to warn civilians to evacuate Hiroshima, but his plan goes wrong, making Micah meet his untimely fate and leaving him stuck in Hiroshima as a ghost.
With no choice but to situate himself in the land of his enemies, he finds himself drawn to the lives of Kiyomi and her eight-year-old daughter, Ai. As Micah intimately learns more about this small family, he begins to regret his hatred for Japan and even falls in love with his supposed former enemy. In the living’s interactions with the dead, both begin to look past nationality and resentment to regard the humanity that is so often forgotten in times of trepidation.
Author Kenneth Harmon has skillfully created characters who are singular in their existences yet still familiar to the reader. I found myself laughing with the quippy internal monologues of the characters and sobbing when things would seemingly never go their way. Harmon has brought up a dialogue on the amorality of war: that in seeking revenge or retribution for one’s own loved ones, they are creating the same heartache for someone else. Harmon’s novel is far from moralistic, however, because the novel also forgives those who seek forgiveness.
The novel tackles issues beyond the war but fully within the theme of questioning systems imposed on those who are prevented from knowing or cannot do anything about them. Though Kiyomi should arguably only worry about caring for the health of herself and her daughter, she must also navigate a culture in which she cannot say what is truly on her mind because she must maintain a motherly or matronly appearance palatable enough for her in-laws. Because she has been so shamed by this appeasement of others, her pride often gets in the way of accepting gifts that could nourish her and her child or even save her from a life she has so long scorned.
I would recommend this novel to anyone seeking out books with a strong yet imperfect hero, poeticism that folds in the language of the culture it inhabits, and a love story that outdoes the cliché yet maintains all of its familiar impulses. Harmon has beautifully crafted lives that I befriended or hated along with the protagonists. They became so real and fleshy to me that even the historical events that I knew were coming surprised me as much as they did Micah and Kiyomi. Funny, loving, and harrowing, this novel is sure to encourage you to hug the ones you love and take a chance on those you wish to love.
Paperback: 352 pages
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