Monday, July 23, 2018

An uneasy inheritance: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Shadow Child, set in mid-20th-century America and Japan (plus US/Can giveaway)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s second novel has a terrific opening – a small masterpiece of plot and atmosphere – that elicits many questions. The mystery surrounding their answers unspools over the course of this multi-layered, moody, occasionally meandering work.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Hanako (Hana) Swanson returns late to her barren NYC apartment. She expects to find her twin sister, Keiko (Kei), from whom she’s been estranged for six years, waiting for her. Kei had insisted on flying to see Hana, saying she needed to give her a promised inheritance from their mother. What Hana finds, though, is her sister lying in the bathtub, unconscious and bruised. This makes Hana remember seeing a shadowy man in the lobby, someone who did a double-take upon seeing her. Who was he, and was he Kei's attacker?

The sisters had grown up together in a remote Hawaiian village. Hana was known as the good, responsible one, while Kei was the rebel. Their loving mother, Miya, was prone to odd fevers and episodes of mental instability, while their stepfather, Arnie, proved a steadying influence. The girls, whose mirror-image, “hapa haole” (part-white) appearance sets them apart, were once very close, but their interests diverged, and then a tragic incident involving a cave broke their bond for good.

While desperate to learn what happened to her sister, Hana fears revisiting the past. She tells of bearing physical and mental scars testifying to the trauma she suffered.

The plot vibrates with tension throughout. Rizzuto increases the suspense by interspersing Hana’s segments, in which she remembers her unusual childhood, with those of a newlywed named Lillie in California beginning in 1942. Abandoned as a baby, and raised by white parents, Lillie is an American of Japanese ancestry who has just married Donald, a man of similar heritage.

Lillie's dreams of starting married life on the East Coast are set aside when Donald insists that they join his parents in Los Angeles. In the days after Pearl Harbor, however, anyone of Japanese appearance falls under suspicion by the government, and even by former neighbors and friends. “She was a Jap now,” Lillie thinks, and her sudden realization feels piercing: “She’d become an enemy alien, when she had always only been herself.” Not knowing how to speak Japanese, and restricted from travel, Lillie feels trapped.

The question of identity, which sits at the novel’s heart, is an issue that all three women struggle with. How do society’s views affect who you are? If you grow up as the mirror image of someone else, how can your individuality flourish? In the case of Lillie and her daughters, how has Lillie’s traumatic past manifested itself in Hana and Kei, and what is Hana withholding from her narrative? It’s always clear that Lillie and Miya are the same person, and the reason for her transformation, and the identity of the twins’ father, is resolved in a realistic way by the end.

The settings are as vividly rendered as the characters’ psychologies: impersonal and crowded New York City, a small-town Hawaii untouched by tourism, the internment camp at Manzanar, and places darker still, following Lillie’s arrival in unfamiliar Japan. The chapters told from the viewpoint of “Koko” (both girls together, using a nickname created from their own names) are confusing, but effective all the same.

Recommended as a unique look at sisterhood, the aftermath of trauma, and the careful path these women travel to find healing and acceptance.

Shadow Child was published by Grand Central/Hachette in May; I received an ARC from a Shelf Awareness giveaway.

Thanks to the publisher, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway for readers in the US and Canada: two hardcover copies are up for grabs. Please fill out the form below for a chance to win. One entry per household; void where prohibited. Deadline Sunday, July 29.

Update: The giveaway is over.  Congrats to Canadian readers Linda and Judith!  Your books are on the way.

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