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Book Review: The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Itō

February 27, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. Peach colored roses with thorns are painted on the background. The title is written in a cursive font in a dark brown.

One of Japan’s most prominent women writers writes of a contemporary woman’s life split between caring for her much older British husband in California and her aging parents in Japan and her three daughters in both places.

Summary:
The first novel to appear in English by award-winning author Hiromi Ito explores the absurdities, complexities, and challenges experienced by a woman caring for her two families: her husband and daughters in California and her aging parents in Japan. As the narrator shuttles back and forth between these two starkly different cultures, she creates a powerful and entertaining narrative about what it means to live and die in a globalized society.

Ito has been described as a “shaman of poetry” because of her skill in allowing the voices of others to show through her. Here she enriches her semi-autobiographical novel by channeling myriad voices drawn from Japanese folklore, poetry, literature, and pop culture. The result is a generic chimera—part poetry, part prose, part epic—a unique, transnational, polyvocal mode of storytelling. One throughline is a series of memories associated with the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo, who helps to remove the “thorns” of human suffering.

Review:
I picked this up from my library’s new books shelf, and for some reason I misunderstood and thought it was creative nonfiction. Since the main character shares the author’s first name, I stayed under this belief for quite some time, right up until the main character does something that shocked me. Then I investigated and realized it’s fiction heavily inspired by the author’s own life. I mention this to say that this reads like very modern creative nonfiction. It’s a mix of poetry, vignettes, and factual asides and doesn’t use quotation marks ever. Each chapter ends with a note of what works inspired that particular chapter. I was honestly impressed at this fictional creative nonfiction.

While each chapter vaguely goes in order of a year or two or Hiromi’s life, each also explores other parts of her life. And some weeks may be dropped in-between. The point isn’t a linear story but rather an exploration of how Hiromi deals with being in the sandwich generation with the added factor of her husband being at least 20 years older than her and so, he is aging more rapidly than she and requires more caregiving than he might otherwise. Hiromi thus deals with universal themes of caring for others while struggling to care for yourself. Of trying to give space to others to make their own decisions about their lives while worrying about them and wanting them to stick around.

Another major theme is Hiromi’s global life. She’s Japanese, living part-time in California, raising three daughters all of whom are American, one of whom is biracial (it’s unclear from the story if the older two daughters are biracial or not), living with a husband who is a British immigrant to the US who is also an older generation than her. There are so many cultural and generational differences for Hiromi to deal with. She struggles with Japanese perceptions of her husband, her husband’s perceptions of Japan, her own daughter’s difficulties to speak Japanese fluently, and more. What I found the most interesting was her husband’s misguided belief that because she was Japanese she wasn’t religious at all, only to become very angry at her when he finds out she took their daughter to visit a shrine. He thinks of this as religious. She thinks of it as simply a way of being. This thus explores the very interesting question of how much, if any, of spirituality is cultural?

Jizo and Jizo’s shrine are interwoven throughout the book. Hiromi feels a particular affinity for Jizo and so we see her memories of the shrine and also see her visiting the shrine in present time. Jizo is a Bodhisattva who is believed to help relieve suffering. Bodhisattva is a term used in two ways. It can mean anyone who is working in this life toward enlightenment. But it also can mean souls that have attained enlightenment but delays going to nirvana to help ease the suffering of others. This book takes up the latter definition, because the main character most strongly identifies with Pure Land Buddhism, which is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that uses this definition of Bodhisattva. Although I have familiarity with Buddhism (as you can see in one of my short stories), I don’t think you have to in order to appreciate how Jizo is interwoven in the story. Hiromi is dealing with very difficult aspects of life, and when she’s struggling, she leans on a comfort from childhood – Jizo and his shrine. This is a very relatable emotional choice. It’s so relatable, in fact, that one cannot help but empathize with Hiromi when her husband struggles to understand why she feels an attachment to Jizo’s shrine when she’s dealing with her father’s aging and her mother’s slow death from a stroke. (Honestly, her husband is infuriating, even while you can see that he does indeed love Hiromi.)

As you can probably tell, this book does deal with difficult topics. Be aware that Hiromi’s mother’s stroke and its impact on her body is quite central to the story. Her father’s aging is depicted honestly, without any gentling of the more difficult aspects. Hiromi mentions in passing having had multiple miscarriages and abortions in the past. A character has a cancer scare that leads to a rather graphic scene of bleeding. Another character has a heart issue. Eating disorders are mentioned although not depicted graphically. Racism and xenophobia are both depicted on screen. Finally, and what was to me the most shocking, Hiromi engages in a violent act against her husband at one point. I thought all of these were dealt with in an even-handed and fair way except for how Hiromi treats her husband. That I felt was glossed over a bit too easily, especially for a character who believes suffering can come from a human killing spiders. Her lack of guilty feelings felt out of character to me.

Overall, this is an engaging read that merges creative nonfiction and fiction in fascinating ways and provides perspective on Japanese, American, and British cultures. For those less familiar with Japan, the translator offers an introduction to help understand what you might need to in order to enjoy the book fully. I also appreciate the translator’s note at the end that describes the translation process and how the author had some say in it.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 300 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)