The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I love going into second-hand book shops and seeing what jumps out at me- so often you find a real gem that just wouldn’t be in your average Waterstones. This was the case for this book, which caught my eye in The Second Hand Bookshop in Beverley. Being a sucker for historical fiction (and I mean proper fiction set in the past, not that soppy nonsense some people read) I had to give this one a go, despite being about a topic I have never really even thought about- the Japanese interment camps in the USA during the Second World War.

The book centers on Henry Lee, a recently widowed Chinese American who recalls his life as a child during the war in Seattle. The book opens in 1986 with the discovery of the possessions of hundreds of Japanese people in the Panama Hotel, in what used to be the Japanese district. The Japanese population of Seattle (and many other cities) were evicted from their homes to go to the interment camps, as they were seen as the enemy and the Americans were terrified of Japanese spies after Pearl Harbor. This brings back all the memories of the past for him, and the book then flips back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s.

Henry’s parents were very nationalistic Chinese, but insisted he only speaks English (which they can’t speak themselves, so causes huge family problems) and he attends the all white school where he is bullied by the other children. There he meets Keiko, an American Japanese girl who becomes his best friend, and is his father’s worst nightmare. Henry and Keiko both love Jazz music, and even have a song written about them by famous musician Oscar and his friend Sheldon- this is what Henry is searching for in the basement of the Panama Hotel in 1986 as his last memory of Keiko.

Keiko, along with the rest of the Japanese community, are shipped off to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, which Henry secretly visits alongside the lunch lady and where he discovers his feelings for Keiko are stronger than just friendship. He writes to her every week, and promises to wait for her, but his father insists he return to China to finish his education. Torn between loyalty to his family and his love for Keiko, Henry dithers but with the letters from Keiko drying up (it turns out his father stopped them) and his father having a stroke, Henry decides to give up the memory of Keiko and go to China, as long as his father promises to stop the sale of the Panama Hotel where Keiko’s possessions are stored. Henry begins to date Ethel, the Chinese girl working at the post office who is impressed by his loyalty in writing to Keiko, and he eventually marries her and has a son, Marty.
It isn’t until 1986 when Henry tells this story to Marty while searching the hotel for Keiko’s possessions, and the missing jazz record that he thinks about meeting Keiko again but since Ethel died so recently, he decides not to try and find her. However, Marty does this for him and finds Keiko in New York City- she sends Henry a copy of the record to play at Sheldon’s funeral and Marty buys him the plane tickets to visit her. The book ends with Keiko beginning the only Japanese phrase she actually knew, and Henry finishing it- “Oai deki te ureshii desu” (How are you today, beautiful?) which is so lovely and made me smile after all they have been through.

I finished the book with a definite feeling of bitter and sweet- it was one of those happy sad endings that you wish had carried on just to see how Henry and Keiko went on from that first meeting since the camp. I’ve read reviews that point on anachronisms and inaccuracies, but since I don’t know anything about the subject I didn’t notice and it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book at all. I really enjoyed it- it had romance, history and the just plain nice message that everyone should get along no matter who they are or where they are from. I’ll be on the lookout for more books by Jamie Ford in the future.

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