Reviews > Published on November 12th, 2013

Bookshots: "A True Novel" by Minae Mizumura

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


A True Novel

Who Wrote it?

The characters themselves stayed with me while I worked through the book. At times I'd find myself thinking about them long after I'd put it down...

Minae Mizumura wrote it in her native Japanese; Jessica Winters Carpenter translated it into English.

Plot in a Box:

Part memoir, part "true novel" — a traditional Japanese story type explained in the book — it's a rags-to-riches tale of a life begun in post-war Japan. The story spans multiple countries and delves into classism, poverty, and star-crossed love.

Invent a New Title for this Book:

I'm the worst at titles. I can't even make up good titles for my own books. and Yoko? Let's keep it simple, like Romeo and Juliet.

Read This If You Like:

Memoirs, war stories, Wuthering Heights (the book was heavily influenced by Wuthering Heights, as explained in the 158 pages of prologue), Downton Abbey

Meet the Book's Leads:

Taro, a Japanese man who makes his fortune in mid-20th century America but harbors a flame for the woman he left behind; Fumiko, a maid in a Japanese home who tells Taro's story.

Said Leads Would Be Portrayed In a Movie By:

A lot would depend on if the movie-version would be an Americanization, or if it would hold true and remain a Japanese story. If it stays Japanese, we'll need Japanese stars. For Taro, the actor should be strong and charismatic. Fumiko is quietly beautiful - almost brooding. I'd love to hear your suggestions on who should play them, so feel free to leave your tips in the comments below.

Setting: Would You Want To Live There?

Post-war Japan? Not so much — it was pretty bleak.

New York? Absolutely. Bring it on.

What Was Your Favorite Sentence?

Some deaths weighed far more than those of people like my father.

The Verdict:

A True Novel is an interesting read, to say the least. Broken up into two "volumes," the print version is gorgeous — the kind of book collectors will relish, with full-page photos of Japan in the mid-20th century, and a lovely slipcase. Of course, the fact that it's broken up into two volumes lets you know one thing off the bat: it's a long read. Very long. Weighing in at over 800 pages, A True Novel requires a bit of a commitment. You may want to have a talk with it before you start. "I'm in this for the long haul," or, "Let's just see where this goes, okay?"

I was dubious at first, I'll be honest with you. When a book starts with over 150 pages of prologue/introduction, comprised of the author's experience in knowing the book's (fictionalized) subject, it can feel very meta and maybe a bit confusing. This didn't continue throughout the entire book, however. The story grew and morphed, as did my opinion of it.

A True Novel is heavily layered; once you get past the prologue, it's a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, each referencing the others. Some layers were bound to be the better ones. To me, the second half of the book (which actually tells Taro's story, rather than building it up and telling me about Taro's story) is far superior to the first, but the whole book is immersive. Engaging. We're taken through time, from post-war Japan to mid-century New York, all to follow Taro's rags to riches tale, as told through a variety of narrators.

The writing is simple and elegant, a testament to the skill not only of the author, but of the translator, who must have enjoyed translating the rural Japanese dialect into something resembling American Southern voices. If the story is sprawling, it's because it has directions in which to sprawl. It spans multiple countries, and the many distinct classes within each country. We even get Downton Abbey-ish glimpses into the lives and hierarchies of the servants to upper class Japanese. 

The characters themselves stayed with me while I worked through the book. At times I'd find myself thinking about them long after I'd put it down, wondering how Taro would get from Point A to Point X, or if he and his beloved Yoko would ever be together. To me, that's the mark of a book that's gotten under your skin, and even though it took a while, A True Novel eventually got under mine. 

I have a feeling it's a book I'll revisit. For the writing, for the story, for the characters — this won't likely be the only time I spend with Taro, Yoko, Fumiko, and Minae Mizumura. 

About the author

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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