April 2006

Julia Ramey

fiction

Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner

The striking beauty and rich traditions of Japan star in Angela Davis-Gardner’s third novel, Plum Wine, which transports readers to the faraway island in the 1960s and offers a compelling look at a nation still reeling from World War II.

The year is 1966, and Barbara Jefferson, an American teacher at a Japanese university, has just received an inheritance: a tansu, or chest, filled with bottles of plum wine. Its former owner, Michiko Nakamoto, had been something of a mother-figure to Barbara as she adjusted to Japanese life, so her sudden, mysterious death leaves Barbara reeling. While tearfully inspecting the chest, Barbara finds that each bottle of wine is dated, one for each year from 1930 to 1965. Surrounding each bottle is rice paper covered in handwritten calligraphy; Barbara discovers that each is a journal entry from the year the wine was made. Within is the tale of Michi’s life -- and perhaps the explanation for her untimely death.

As she mourns, Barbara meets the mysterious Seiji Okada, who also was close to Michi; the tansu unites the two as he agrees to translate its contents for her. Their efforts lead to an intense love affair, which dwindles only when Barbara realizes the often-distant Seiji is leaving out parts of the writing from translation. As she investigates his past as well as Michi’s, she discovers that both were victims of the Hiroshima bombing, an event that becomes a looming character in its own right.

We learn that hibakusaha -- the bomb’s survivors -- are an underclass in Japan, “untouchables.” We learn that Seiji, who was thirteen when the bomb exploded, is physically intact but emotionally devastated. And we learn that international tension has not vanished: on the contrary, Barbara finds herself confused and defensive as her Japanese friends speak out against American-led war in Vietnam -- an internal struggle many modern-day Americans will identify with.

Davis-Gardner is an excellent tour guide: her vivid descriptions and lucid explanations of all things Japanese are nearly enough to make you impulsively purchase a plane ticket. Visions of elaborate tea ceremonies, emerald evergreen branches and the golden plums that make Michi’s wine make Plum Wine sensual, inviting, illuminating. The reader will pick up a few bits of vocabulary, and perhaps an appetite for eel, mochi cake, and most certainly the sweet drink that gives the book its name.

If only we had a better companion than the needy, temperamental Barbara Jefferson. She refers to herself as “passionate” throughout, but her passion is more of an annoying persistence. She’s inconsistent, here aggressive and there reduced to a weeping vapidity. Of course, we need an American through whom to understand Seiji and Japan, but Barbara is inadequate in that responsibility, distracting in all the wrong ways. Davis-Gardner most glaringly errs in not further describing Barbara’s relationship with Michi, whom she only knew for a few months; when Barbara is sniveling at Michi’s loss, it feels empty, unfounded, and even a bit ridiculous.

Much more compelling is the tortured Seiji, whose dark past Davis-Gardner reveals with impeccable timing, peeling away fragmented layers of emotion until we finally understand his erratic, mysterious nature. Gardner’s thorough, impressive understanding of Japanese sentiment and culture is the book’s strength; her attention to detail pays off in a fine composite of a country in transition. Its less-than-compelling heroine prevents Plum Wine from being deeply satisfying, but its supporting cast and exotic setting make it an enriching read.

Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner
The University of Wisconsin Press
ISBN: 0299211606
316 pages