What kind of a people, she wondered, does what was done that day and then has no concept of the enormity of their act?
(from The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, page 339)
On the surface, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a novel about the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 during World War II and a handful of people from different walks of life who are impacted by the war. But it goes so much deeper than that. Jennifer Cody Epstein introduces her characters before the war, when life was filled with promise, and lets readers follow them through the darkest days of the war and the period of change afterward.
The novel opens with Cam and Lacy on a ferris wheel at a fair in New York. Cam is shy and quiet from years of being ridiculed by his father for his stutter, while Lacy is a take-charge kind of woman who sets their relationship in motion. The hopes and dreams they have are put on hold when war breaks out, and Cam joins the U.S. Army Air Corps. Epstein has readers sit in the cockpit with Cam as he takes part in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.
Epstein also introduces readers to Anton, the architect behind many of Tokyo’s modern structures who is later called on by the U.S. military to help destroy them. His son, Billy, is a sensitive soul who doesn’t fit in and feels at home only behind a camera. Hana, a passionate, modern woman who eschews the old Japanese ways, feels abandoned by the men she has loved and is resigned to a loveless, arranged marriage. Yoshi is torn between her love for her troubled mother and her need to escape the depression that permeates their home — and then the incendiary bombs rain down on Tokyo.
These characters were intriguing and their stories fascinating on their own, but when the pieces fell into place and the connections between them were made known, I was blown away. Epstein does a wonderful job painting a picture of Tokyo before and after and makes you feel like you are standing beside Yoshi when the bombs drop, feeling the heat, tasting the smoke, getting lost in all the chaos and confusion. She is a master storyteller, enabling readers to really get to know her characters as they flit in and out of their lives.
Epstein focuses on the contrasts that make war so complex: before vs. after, war vs. murder, orders vs. ethics, victors vs. victims, us vs. them. With characters that straddle both sides, she explores the gray areas of war and identity. Billy was born and raised in Japan but isn’t Japanese. Yoshi speaks Japanese, English, and French, thanks to her mother, Hana, who was educated in England and feels more English than Japanese. They desire love, acceptance, security, and to know their true selves — and the war makes their search for these essentials more desperate and necessary.
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is beautifully written and skillfully constructed. Epstein moves back and forth between the characters, telling seemingly separate stories, and while readers may not understand where she is taking them, they will be rewarded for their patience in the end. It’s not an easy book to read given the subject matter, and Epstein doesn’t flinch in her descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by both sides. No book about war can be wrapped up neatly or painlessly, but Epstein manages to infuse the ending with hope. Tokyo is a symbol of these characters, who are brought down by their families and the war, and those who manage to survive will be reborn.
Disclosure: I received The Gods of Heavenly Punishment from W.W. Norton & Company for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.