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Painful but exquisitely beautiful
on January 6, 2013
This book is to documentary writing what Haiku is to epic poetry. Although it has all the grim realism of factual description of the catastrophic events of the tsunami, nuclear power plant meltdown and subsequent typhoon which beset Japan in 2011, it is told in vivid understatement.
Ehrlich is an outside observer, yet one who manages to be intimately and personally connected with those who have survived the incredible losses resulting from this multilayered disaster. Although it is by no means a polemic, she manages to present just enough hard data about the unbelievable contamination caused by the power plant meltdown and the incompetence and perfidy of the government to make it plain that the people might have been able to cope much better had this been "only" a natural disaster. She provides grim awareness that not only the people in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, but those elsewhere, perhaps even unknowing people in Third World countries where nuclear-contaminated rice is being unloaded by unscrupulous profit-mongers, may suffer the long-term effects of this disaster.
Far more important than the description of the material destruction she viewed, however, is Ehrlich's immersion in the ongoing lives of the several people who serve as her guides and contribute their stories to her narrative. Although this story is grippingly painful, it is also exquisitely beautiful. In a dream sequence near the end, she says, "We see how pain and joy are not opposites, but spark off each other. We can see the pain of loss and swing the other way, encountering the unexpected joy of survival."
As Gretel Ehrlich weaves her simple yet intricately nuanced story, this truth is bountifully shared with the reader.