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Above the East China Sea: A novel Hardcover – May 27, 2014
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*Starred Review* Obon, the Buddhist festival of the dead, provides the frame for Bird’s novel about two girls who live in the same place, the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, but at different times. Tamiko, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, leaves home with her sister, Hatsuko, to take part in Japan’s desperate, last-ditch defense against the Americans in 1945. More than 60 years later, Luz James, a part-Okinawan military brat living at Kadena Air Base, is grieving for her own sister, who was killed while serving with the air force in Afghanistan. Bird uses distinct voices to weave her narrative. Luz’s voice convincingly captures a smart but troubled contemporary teen, while Tamiko’s voice reflects her place in a very different culture. Readers won’t soon forget Tamiko’s searing depiction of her experiences during the Battle of Okinawa, when more than one-third of the local population was killed or committed suicide. Links between the two girls, hinted at early on, crystallize as Luz’s quest to learn more about her ancestors takes her deeper into the past and into the traditions that still exert a hold on daily Okinawan life. Bird, whose other novels include the well-received Yokota Officers Club (2001), has delivered a multilayered and utterly involving work with plenty of grist for book discussions. --Mary Ellen Quinn
“A big novel of place and ideas, and a finely wrought one with dynamic characters and relationships. . . . As the novel moves between past and present, between the perspectives of [two] girls coming of age in the mysterious puzzle of Okinawa, the island and culture are shaped by the lessons of war and occupation. . . . Richly rewarding.” —Elizabeth Taylor, Editor’s Choice, The Chicago Tribune
“A stunning account of wartime Okinawa, which was both a colony of Japan and its front line. . . . Everything from the local educational system, to the fatalistic ideology of the imperial cult, to the social signifiers encoded in a prostitute’s kimono . . . create a visceral rendering of a society buckling between the exigencies of obligation and the realities of deprivation. . . . Bird is a wise and sensitive writer.”—Anthony Marra, San Francisco Chronicle
“An extraordinary effort of the imagination and a major display of literary talent—an absolutely don’t-miss novel that should become a classic contribution to the fiction of our era.”—Claire Hopley, The Washington Times
“Like Faulkner, Bird is a writer whose métier is the American South, though, also like Faulkner, her writing possesses an expansive worldview. To my mind, Bird is the finest living Texas novelist, and Above the East China Sea showcases all of her gifts in spades—her unmistakable voice displays warmth, wit, and that rare variety of irreverence that possesses real heart.”—Robert Leleux, The Texas Observer
“Above the East China Sea should be the one that lands Bird among the literary elite. This is the rare tome that has the goods for both popular and critical acclaim at the highest level.”—Joy Tipping, The Dallas Morning News
“This is Bird’s most ambitious novel to date, tackling a World War II tragedy about which most Westerners know little or nothing. During the Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of island teens known as the Princess Lily Girls were forced to serve as nurses on the front lines under horrifying conditions. . . . Bird depicts Okinawa’s island culture, and its violent near-erasure at the hands of Japan and America, in hypnotic detail . . . the history is undeniably gripping. Ultimately, this tale of how women and girls survive bloody times manages its happy ending without offering easy answers—quite a feat for such an entertaining read.”—Amy Gentry, The Austin Chronicle
“A rich and engrossing achievement . . . a suspenseful and magical journey . . . Fans of Amy Tan or Khaled Hosseini will be drawn to the adept mingling of settings and cultures.”—Library Journal
“A powerful sense of history and place . . . Set in Okinawa with heroines who live seven decades apart, Bird’s ambitious and rewarding novel offers a fascinating glimpse of the Pacific Island . . . She, herself an ‘Army brat,’ invests the narrative with psychological veracity and effectively contrasts brusque military lingo with the islanders’ lyrical expressions.”—PW
Advance Praise for Sarah Bird's Above the East China Sea
"Above the East China Sea is Sarah Bird's most powerful novel yet. This tour de force of historical imagination cuts between the bloody, beleaguered Okinawa of 1945 and its seemingly peaceful incarnation in the present time. But the island is far from peaceful; beneath the surface of things, war continues to roil and trouble this profoundly damaged place. By interweaving the stories of two young women separated by time and culture, Bird has given us a profoundly moving meditation on war, family, love, and what might be waiting for us on the other side of loss."
--Ben Fountain, winner of 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award finalist.
“Sarah Bird, a brilliant and accomplished novelist, has topped herself with this uncommonly powerful, beautifully rendered novel. Above the East China Sea is a compelling tale of love, loss, and the desperate search for closure, wrapped in a gripping mystery that must be worked out against the backdrop of a fascinating culture that is as little known to Americans as it is important. This book rings true on all its levels. From the stresses of a military family to the banter of American teens. From the power of an ancient culture to the tragedy of war and its aftermath. This story is unlike any I’ve read before. I will never think of Okinawa, or war, or belonging, in the same way again. Above the East China Sea will stay with me forever.”
--Mary Wertsch, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress
“Informed by her research in Okinawa’s history and literature, novelist Sarah Bird combines the saga of an Okinawan high school girl drafted to serve in 1945 as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa with the story of an American military dependent sent with her family to the vast complex of U.S. bases in Okinawa where troops train today for the war in Afghanistan. The loss of family members in war and rituals for communicating with spirits of the dead connect these two narratives which take place in disparate times and cultures, but in the same lush environment of this sub-tropical island. Bird portrays characters among Okinawans from many walks of life in the 1930s and 1940s with remarkable fullness and credibility. This double drama held me rapt throughout, enhanced by the author’s first-hand knowledge of growing up in a military family overseas and her ever-sharp ear for raw and raunchy teenage dialogue.”
--Steve Rabson, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, Brown University
Top customer reviews
How their stories connect and merge involved me so completely that I would find myself gasping out loud as I was reading. Sarah Bird took me on a journey that I will not soon forget. I cared for these characters and was grateful to be able to watch them and their stories develop.
She gently takes us into the spiritual world that is so important to her characters, and the payoff is so satisfying that I can't stop thinking about it. I am enthusiastically recommending this wonderful and special book to everyone I know.