Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett is an #OwnVoices Japanese-American post-war contemporary novel that follows three generations of women across three countries with two altering perspectives. The story begins with Satomi approximately fifteen years after World War II in Japan. She is raised in a single parent home, unsure of who her father was. Her mother is the centre of town gossip as the owner of an izakaya (Japanese pub) where she chats and harmlessly flirts with many married men. Because of this, the two of them experience awful ostracization, which Satomi tries desperately to escape via her piano-playing capabilities. Many years later in a faraway country, we are introduced to Rumi, Satomi’s daughter, who is a diaspora in San Francisco, completely cut off from her Japanese roots. When an unexpected revelation surfaces, Rumi must travel back to Japan and come face-to-face with her missing identity and familial dysfunctions.
Picking Bones from Ash had a good, strong start to it with lovely storytelling and decent use of the purple prose style to convey to the reader the rich environmental beauty of Japan, as well as the frustrating and daunting atmosphere of living with being blacklisted by the local social circles. The scenery engaged nearly all of the senses, making it much easier for me to empathise with the emotions that Satomi or her mother were undergoing. I also found these details to be a bit allegorical to the terrible living situation that the women had to endure. This type of symbolism isn’t limited to the chronicles of being an outsider, but also during Satomi’s difficulties with trying to find her musical voice as a pianist.
Outside, the cherry blossoms dissolved like sugar in the heavy rains of spring and a wave of fleshy green leaves exploded through Ueno Park, bringing the smell of nature in through my window. I worked my way through Uchihara-sensei’s lessons…But I began to study the Lento from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 1 on my own. I indulged myself in the melodic lines, in the way the voices braided together like a conversation.”
The first two-thirds of the story also carefully explores the conflicting cultural and social ideals that were evolving during this post-war period, specifically with regards to the roles that women played in a household, and in a social hierarchy with one another. As people began to modernise and search for an identity that was separate than “Japanese,” they also formed groups of leaders and followers. Those who didn’t submit to such theatrics, such as Satomi’s mother, ended up falling victim to the worst sort of subjugation.
We see a parallel with this particular motif when Rumi’s perspective begins to sprout up as she is a Japanese diaspora who knows virtually nothing about her cultural heritage or background, to the point where she never views herself as a Japanese individual until much later on. Rumi’s awkward unfamiliarity and anxiety when confronted with this culture and language that she doesn’t grasp a lick of truly captures the essence of displaced identity crises that Japan faced in the wake of their defeat in World War II, and for decades following it. I felt that this was a vital theme that could have been expounded upon to give the narrative, as well as the characters, much more depth than what they ended up receiving. Unfortunately, it was also around Rumi’s introduction that the book started to fall apart in terms of quality and consistency.
The last one-third of the novel is jam-packed with muddled progression and confusing plot elements that didn’t quite fit the tone and rhythm of everything that came before it. There were certain points where I actually felt that the main plot had stopped and switched to a whole different concentration. However, hastily afterwards I came to understand that the plot in and of itself was a terribly weak one to begin with that was initially shielded by the lovely prose and salacious drama of Satomi’s personal life. To say that is was frustrating after that promising first half to two-thirds would be a massive understatement.
Additionally, the altering point-of-views between Rumi and Satomi were horridly incongruous. One of the perspectives doesn’t even have a suitable end to it. It just abruptly stops in a random place, forgotten and never to be touched again. From that point forward the rest of the novel is from the second perspective. I got the impression that it was compensating for the lack of developments and possibly even just indecision on how to move forward from that particular point.
Other smaller annoyances I had were the narrators. They are so unbelievably unlikeable and oft times infuriating. Satomi never grows up. Not once. She was treated with such care as a child that she became an adult who threw tantrums like a six-year-old whenever she didn’t get her way or didn’t like what she was hearing. Her self-entitled attitude and constant need to be coddled made me want to throw a brick at her face. Rumi is slightly better; however, the most annoying quality of her personality is the way that she interacts with the Japanese people. Her commentary can be construed as quite ignorant and offensive, which makes sense given that she was never exposed to this part of her identity. Yet, as someone who holds utmost respect of other cultures, especially my own, it made me cringe on more than one occasion. Her mannerisms and lack of politeness were so typical to brash, privileged Western personalities that it made me very uncomfortable and quite angry. Yes, everything is different because you’re in a different country. People aren’t going to adapt to you just because you’re American. Get over yourself.
It is very easy to convince yourself that you have done something correctly if you never really pay attention to what else you might have done in the first place.”
Overall, Picking Bones from Ash ended up being a rather average reading experience that required far more editing and polishing, and maybe even a spot of guidance with plot and character development. Regardless of everything that drove me batty, the story is a decent one and the portrayal of post-war Japan as well as the representation of diaspora struggling with something that is a part of them yet so wholly unfamiliar is fascinating and possibly worth tolerating all of the other distorted nuances for.