It seems fitting that I review a book this month that deals with a hibakusha, or survivor of the atomic bomb. On August 6th and 9th, Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the 69th anniversary of the atomic bomb drops. (Interestingly enough, just a few weeks prior, the last survivor member of the Enola Gay – the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima – passed away.) For Mas Arai, the main character of Naomi Hirahara’s novel Summer of the Big Bachi, the atomic bomb is both an inescapable part of his past and a constant shadow in his present.
Mas Arai is many things – a hibakusha, a kibei (American-born but raised in Japan), a widower and a gardener in southern California. He doesn’t go looking for trouble but trouble comes looking for him, in the form of two visitors from Japan. They begin asking questions, first of him and then of his friends and acquaintances, and their investigations threaten to stir up the truth about something Mas has hidden since the day of the bomb.
The mystery in this book is hard to describe. To me, the secret was a bit predictable but the motivations of the characters pursuing the truth were murkier. You know from the synopsis on the back cover that one of the characters will die, but he still appears throughout the first half of the book and you don’t feel altogether sad at his passing. Many of the characters start off having one reason for acting, but later reveal another. As a mystery, it didn’t necessarily come together coherently for me, though all is indeed resolved at the end.
And yet, for some reason, I got very engrossed in it and couldn’t put it down, plowing through the final hundred pages on a short flight home the other day. Mas is an intriguing character. He’s not a man you will readily identify with and he’s not even really someone you cheer for ordinarily. He’s a gambler, a man who wasn’t the best father or husband and has a bit of a temper. But you start to feel for him and understand that behind his poor choices is a decent man in a tough life.
While the novel takes place in California, it’s peppered with Japanese words and phrases. Most of them are translated but a few are less than obvious and I drew on my own knowledge of Japanese to fill in the gaps. However, it would seem less authentic to hear Mas’ voice in anything other the mix of Japanese words and “broken” English the author employs for many of the older generation immigrants.
Summer of the Big Bachi is the first in a series and, while not as immediately engrossing as some of the other books I’ve read lately, I do think I’ll make the effort to track down the others.