Just about every major character in "The Japanese Lover" guards a secret shrouded in shame. During the novel, those secrets gradually are uncovered, and shame gives way to sorrow, love, and redemption.
Isabel Allende, whose best-selling novels include "The House of the Spirits" and "Eva Luna," has a longstanding penchant for magical realism, as well as for family epics starring female protagonists. True to form, "The Japanese Lover" foregrounds two women in a skillfully constructed nonlinear narrative about families devastated by historical trauma.
It begins in the conventionally realistic, if somewhat idealized, setting of a California continuing-care community. Allende's prose style is simple, sometimes so unadorned as to seem awkward — perhaps an intentional tic or an artifact of its translation from the Spanish. Only over time does the novel's multilayered story, with its occasional hints of a parallel spirit world, grip the reader and acquire poetic force.
At a better-than-most senior residence called Lark House, a young Moldovan immigrant, Irina Bazili, has found a comfortable niche working with a population of mostly "left-wing intellectuals, oddballs, and second-rate artists." She particularly cherishes her side job as a secretary to the talented artist-widow Alma Belasco, whose first name means "soul" in Spanish.
Alma and Irina share a sense of displacement. In 1939, Alma's Polish Jewish parents, fearing the pending catastrophe, sent their young daughter to San Francisco to live with her American aunt and uncle. In their prosperous home, she meets, as boys, the two men who will become central to her life: her cousin Nathaniel and the gardener's son, Ichimei Fukuda.
Irina's fond memories of her Moldovan grandparents help foster a bond with Alma. But other childhood experiences block her from responding to the romantic overtures of Seth, Alma's grandson, who is assembling a family history.
Allende's narrative shifts between past and present, its masterfully controlled third-person voice alternating among the characters. Punctuating the novel are brief, serenely philosophical letters that Ichimei has sent to Alma during their lifelong, frequently interrupted, profoundly passionate romance.
Their first rupture is caused by history. After Pearl Harbor, Ichimei and his family are among the tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans ousted from their West Coast homes and forced into internment camps. Ichimei's family ends up at Topaz, a dusty, barren site in Utah devoid of creature comforts. Allende's description of the camp's privations, along with both the despair and resilience of its inhabitants, echoes contemporary accounts.
Isaac, Alma's uncle, is among the Californians who deplore the deportations. He keeps faith with his gardener, helping the Fukuda family start a gardening business after the war.
Ichimei, who has sent Alma letters and drawings from the camp, returns, and they are temporarily reunited. Becoming lovers, they experience "such a state of ecstasy they could no longer distinguish between joy and sadness, the elation of life or the sweet temptation of dying there and then so that they would never be apart."
Trapped by social pressures and her own conventionality, Alma is unwilling to make a life with Ichimei. They marry others, but eventually resume their furtive, soulful meetings. It is to Allende's credit that she manages to make this unlikely romance, with all its twists and turns, both believable and affecting.
Through much of "The Japanese Lover," there are hints of spirits that shadow the living. At Lark House, Irina realizes that "many of the old folk were permanently accompanied by their dead." And Ichimei writes to Alma:
"I remember how you stroked the names inscribed in the dark stone of the Vietnam Memorial and told me that stones speak, that you can hear their voices, that the dead are trapped inside the wall and cry out to us, outraged at their sacrifice . . . There are spirits all around us, Alma, but I believe they are free and do not harbor any resentment.''
The notion of a spirit world seems initially a backdrop, perhaps a grace note, to lives marked by intermittent hardship, creative fulfillment, and passion. Until we reach the novel's poignant, powerful denouement, which reifies the metaphorical truth of the lovers' escape into a timeless world without "tomorrow or yesterday."
THE JAPANESE LOVER
By Isabel Allende
Translated, from the Spanish,
by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Atria, 322 pp., $28
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.