I love reading historical fiction because the stories give me a sense of what life might have been like during that time, as seen from the author’s eyes. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein opened my eyes to life in Japan during and after World War II. Like most Americans, I was taught the United States’ viewpoint of WWII: us=good and the Japanese/Germans=bad. Especially the Japanese. I only learned about the Japanese-American internment camps on my own, not in my American history class.
While there’s an entire cast of characters in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, the bulk of the novel revolves around Yoshi, who grows up during this tumultuous period of Japan’s history, and her parents. There’s also the missing American pilot whose wife and baby waits for him back in Buffalo, NY. Billy, who grew up in Japan until the war because his architect father designed buildings that merged East-West concepts. The lives of all these characters are intertwined and eventually touched by a small intricate ring that changes hands many times through the novel’s thirty year span.
It’s obvious that Epstein did her research for the novel. Japan comes alive through Yoshi’s teenage eyes as she struggles to take care of herself and her mother, who seems to be suffering from depression. Though the setting in the novel alternates between Japan and different parts of the United States, the Japanese story line feels more important. We only get subtle details about a bomber pilot’s life or U.S. war rationing, almost as if assuming American readers would be familiar with WWII life on the home front. I couldn’t wait to return to Yoshi’s part of the novel.
Then there’s special ring that touches each character’s life. Based on the significance Epstein gave the ring in the first 30 pages, I expected it to be more pivotal to the novel. The ring’s introduction and set up and the characters’ chemistry seemed forced in the first chapter felt stiff. After the pilot’s plane is shot out of the sky, the ring’s story fades away, only making minor appearances through the rest of the book–until the end. The ring subplot felt too forced for me. I kept waiting and waiting for more with this special “Come home to me safely” ring (as one character called it). When the ring finally did reappear in the story, it was anti-climatic. Towards the end, the ring brings the story full circle, but I won’t give it away by telling you how.
I absolutely loved most of the characters in The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, especially Billy and Yoshi. They practically leaped off the page for me. As Americans, it’s important not to see war in black and white, but in subtler ways like Epstein shows her readers. The ring subplot just really bothered me, like a bra that does quite fit. It seems to fit, but I keep tugging and tugging at it, hoping to make me satisfied. It’s been three days since I finished this book and the ring part still bugs me.
Even with my issues with the ring, I definitely recommend this book for its flawed but real characters and its different viewpoint of World War II.
Have you read The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein? I’d love to hear your thoughts!