Sometimes books take a while to get revved up, but when we let them get warm in our hands and settle us into our seats, we find gems in the pages. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is one of those books.
The first few pages were a bit slow because they are so subtle. They tell the story of an old man, Henry, who finds himself stunned by a Japanese parasol that has been pulled out of an abandoned hotel in Seattle. Henry has lost his wife, and somehow this parasol triggers that spark of life that he needs to keep going. Ford’s writing embeds the importance of this event in the mundane, but if a reader keeps at it, she will find herself richly rewarded.
The book spans two timeframes in Seattle’s history – the 1980s and the 1940s – and describes the life of a Chinese-American (Henry) and a Japanese-American (Keiko) who become friends as children during World War II. The cultural complexities of that time when internment camps and Chinese nationalism ran high alongside the soft but biting racism against African-Americans give this novel a social dimension that fleshes out a great deal that I did not know (and was not taught) about the 1940s, particularly on the West Coast. I don’t remember ever reading about or hearing a teacher speak about Japanese Internment Camps here on the East Coast, and the mentions I had of that dark stain of American history came only when I lived in California and read Farewell to Manzanar. Maybe out of embarrassment we have tried to erase this element of our history. I’m glad Ford has brought it back to me, for it is only when we hide something that we cannot work to heal it.
But it’s not just the political and cultural elements of the novel that make it a valuable book; the writing and characterization are subtle and complex. None of the characters here are flat; none are simple; none are wholly right or wholly wrong – they are people. Additionally, the novel is well-paced and gripping for a mystery drives the book forward (a mystery I won’t reveal for those of you who will take my advice and pick up this book). Relationships quiver with life on these pages, and the setting – historically accurate Seattle – is rich and rewarding, reminding me a great deal of what I heard about San Francisco during the same time periods. The moments of tenderness and brutality in this book live fully, bringing me to tears and gasps even as I plowed ahead to hear what was next. And Henry, the protagonist, well, I love him – both as a child I want to help and protect and as an old man at whose feet I would like to sit.
Occasionally, Ford’s writing, particularly at the end of chapters, seems a bit forced, like he’s trying to be writerly, but these lines are overlooked in light of the clarity and richness of the story.
So please, pick up Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, carve out a leisurely afternoon, make a cup of green tea, and read the hours away while adding these characters and this history into your mind.