Magic realism historical fiction novel set in WWII Hiroshima
Content warning: war
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow” by Kenneth W. Harmon is a historical fiction novel about an American bombadier called Micah whose plane is shot down over Hiroshima, Japan during WWII. Although Micah dies, his spirit remains in Hiroshima. He becomes attached to a young Japanese woman called Kiyomi and follows her to her workplace and to her home with her in-laws and daughter. As he slowly learns about his new existence from other ghosts, he grows more and more attached to Kiyomi. With the knowledge that Hiroshima will soon be under attack, Micah must try to find a way to communicate with Kiyomi and warn her before it is too late.
Despite some very graphic scenes, this is for the most part a gentle novel about love and overcoming differences. Remaining in Japan after his death gives Micah a new perspective on the country and people he previously believed were his enemies. Harmon uses dream-like states as a way for his living and dead characters to communicate, and explores ideas about what the afterlife may be like. Kiyomi is an interesting character who is trapped by traditional family obligations, and I thought that her daughter Ai was characterised well too. I thought that the parts of the book set in Hiroshima were the strongest, and I particularly enjoyed Micah’s conversations with an American-Japanese man.
While for the most part I enjoyed the beginning of the story, there were a few elements that I found frustrating. Even death doesn’t appear to prevent Micah from following a woman around (including in the bathroom) who has made it clear that the attention is unwanted. I also think it’s important to note that most of the book is about Kiyomi and her own life and experiences, but that this is not an #OwnVoices book. While Harmon clearly did a significant amount of research for this novel, I actually would have liked to have read more about this process in an afterword. I did feel that the way he sprinkled Japanese language through the book was a little jarring. I also felt that the second half of the novel, which was much more ethereal than the first half, felt muddied and unclear. It was hard to understand how much was inspired by Japanese culture and how much was Harmon’s imagination.
An experimental novel that had some interesting ideas and research but did feel confused at times.