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A True Novel Paperback – November 12, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The story-within-a-story-within-a-story at the heart of this novel features a doomed, Wuthering Heights romance set in postwar Japan, with the 20th-century Heathcliff riding the Japanese-American economic wave. Concentric narratives connect and transform into a critical appraisal of commercial expansion and cultural decline. Narrator-novelist Minae begins by recalling her younger days as the daughter of a Japanese businessman on Long Island, where she meets 20-something Taro Azuma, then a chauffeur for an American. It's the 1960s, a time of opportunity. Years later, Minae meets Japanese émigré Yusuke who describes his encounter in the states with Azuma, now a wealthy man in mysterious seclusion. Yusuke also relates the life story of Fumiko, Azuma's friend. In a flashback to Japan, we see 17-year-old war orphan Fumiko working as a maid for a woman whose family, in 1956, takes the orphaned boy Azuma under its wing as part servant, part protégé. Azuma grows up hopelessly devoted to Yoko, the illness-prone daughter of Fumiko's employer. Yoko in turn loves but rejects Azuma, propelling him to America and prosperity, then back to Japan and to her. The Japanese tradition of burning fires for the dead suits the ghostly Brontë-esque finale, but far more notable are Minae's edgy insights into class distinctions, trans-Pacific cultures, and modernization's spiritual void. A transparent translation and the author's stylistic clarity smooth navigation between storylines. Photographs create the sense of browsing through an album—a nearly 900-page album encompassing two continents and several decades. (Nov.)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Would Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff recognize Minae Mizumura’s Taro Azuma as his literary descendant? Mizumura launches this novel as a re-creation of Brontë’s classic Wuthering Heights set in twentieth-century Japan, and in Taro readers will see Heathcliff’s passionate intensity played out in a life trajectory that parallels Heathcliff’s in its defiant ascent from obscure origins and its obsessive but futile pursuit of an idealized woman who dies prematurely. But Taro confronts readers with complex questions totally outside Heathcliff’s world. For as he struggles to surmount obstacles in postwar Japan, Taro wrestles with the difficulties of preserving a rich cultural heritage in the aftermath of a crushing national defeat. Indeed, as Taro temporarily leaves Japan to pursue his fortunes in the land of the victors, readers see him jettisoning much of his heritage. (Sometimes Taro looks as much like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby as he does Brontë’s Heathcliff.) Above the perplexities besetting Taro, the readers see the daunting conundrums surrounding his creator, Mizumura, herself a character in her novel, grappling with the incompatibilities separating Japan’s own literary traditions from the potent innovations in Western styles of novelizing. Mizumura meets her literary challenge with impressive sophistication and irresistible emotional power, an accomplishment remarkably well conveyed to English-speaking readers by two gifted translators. --Bryce Christensen
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; Box edition (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590512030
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590512036
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 2 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #276,808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Patrice Hoffman on November 12, 2013
Format: Paperback
A Japanese retelling of my favorite classic Wuthering Heights? Where do I sign up?

Minae Mizumura writes beautifully about the life of Taro Azuma. Taro’s a man who intrigues her family with his enigmatic and sometimes dark personality. Mizumura meets this man as a private chauffer for her father’s boss. As time goes on, the only chattering heard about Taro is that he’s slowly making a name for his self and acquiring massive amounts of wealth. The information of Taro’s history is unknown until Mizumura runs into a past student who tells her the story he’s heard of the cryptic Taro Azuma. This handsome man who hails from Japan and is talked about as if a legend, is Mizumura’s starring character in an attempt to write a “true novel”.

Mizumura explains in the prologue (perhaps the longest one I’ve ever read) that “Inovels” are very popular in Japanese literature and are primarily stories that are true to life and neither have a beginning or end since that is of course how true to life they are. Mizumura found that the classic novel Wuthering Heights was a story that is so true to life and told thousands of times. This is where she got the idea of how to structure Taro’s life into a “true novel”. “True” in the sense that it is based off of an actual true story or a man’s wonderful rise in a new world that would not let him remain unconscious to that fact that he was an outsider.

Yusuke happens upon a cottage in a remote part of Karuizawa. His bike is in disrepair after a torrential rain leaves him stranded, keyless, and at the mercy of two strangers. These strangers turn out to be Fumiko, a woman assumed to be the maid, and the legendary Taro Azuma. Yusuke is offered lodging at this home and is baffled by the presence of a woman and man.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mario P. Navetta on January 13, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The Truth Is...
No matter how hard we try, it is often difficult, if not impossible to truly understand the lives of others. Regardless of the intent of our motivations, there will always be veneers of persona, let alone nearly impervious barriers of anima that will frustrate our every attempt. To be certain, there is all of this in A True Novel. But what makes the story so enticing is the ease with which you so gently slide into the tale and embrace it. Or is it that it deceptively embraces you for almost 900 more pages?
Any quest for "understanding," especially as we in the West might know it, is challenging enough. Factor in a different time and place, and the disparate elements of a foreign culture, with all its complexities, and you have an amalgam so nuanced that only a master word metallurgist can discern and relate her findings as to the nature of the chemistry which bonds them.
More than all else then, this is a story that seduces and enthralls you. The seeming simplicity deludes you into a willingness to enter both physical and psychological winter dark forests, live in squalid, claustrophobic surroundings, and endure these conditions with the fragile promise of fulfillment, or perhaps the stoical acceptance that it will never come.
If absolutely nothing else, this is a tale which will remind you of why you are a reader. It will compel you to get to sleep late, forgo otherwise necessary errands, and cause you to become somewhat less mindful of your lunchtime eating decorum. Unfortunately, you will rush to the end, and then become disappointed that you've reached it.
mario
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Susan M. on December 4, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This story engages and transforms, both itself and the reader. Want to read a book that takes over your life , until the last word? If so, this is for you. Many a reviewer might focus on Taro, the male character, but really the female protagonist is the more complex and interesting.

I intend to read another book by this writer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Wally Wood on July 19, 2014
Format: Paperback
This is an extraordinary novel for several reasons. First, as a physical object. The publisher, the Other Press, has produced a work that is a pleasure to hold and read—paperback two volumes in a boxed set on fine paper with an attractive typeface and a number of full-page black-and-white photographs of scenes in and around the place in Japan where the novel is set. It includes a map and a family trees of the two key families so that Western readers can keep the name and relationship straight.

Second, the translation from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter is lively and engaging. It does not read like a translation. (Occasionally in other books, it is possible to recognize where the translator nodded.) The author, Minae Mizumura, was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island when she was twelve. She studied French Literature at Yale College and after finishing her M.Phil. program, returned to Japan to devote herself to writing. She's taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and was a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Finally, the novel itself is wonderful. A True Novel, as Mizumura acknowledges in the first section of the book, is a retelling of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan, featuring a half-Chinese, half-Japanese Heathcliff, Taro Asama. We have a Japanese Catherine, Yoko Utagawa, and a "Nelly" Dean: Fumiko, a maid who tells most of the story. But while there are superficial resemblances to Bronte, which added to my pleasure in the book, A True Novel is its own story, told in its own time (roughly 1945 - 2005) with its own characters and its own setting.
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