University of Wisconsin Press / 316 pages / $26.95
Angela Davis-Gardner's Plum Wine is a wonderfully romantic and well-composed novel. Set in Japan in the early 1960s, it opens with a gift, a chestful of bottles of plum wine wrapped in rice paper on which the former owner, a recently deceased Japanese teacher of literature, has kept an intermittent diary about her life as a hibakusha, or Hiroshima survivor. The recipient is a young American named Barbara Jefferson who had become the teacher's friend during her own time as a visiting teacher. Jefferson sets out in search of a translator for the rice-paper entries and finds Seiji Okada, a potter who grew up in Hiroshima with the late teacher.
Jefferson's anticipation about the content of the diary entries seems to have the same pitch as sexual anticipation. And as Okada reveals more of the diary entries to her, he becomes more deeply entwined in Jefferson's life. This reaches a high point in a high place as the two, having become lovers, travel to Mount Fuji for a glimpse of that beautiful site. Seated on a chairlift that will carry them to new views of the mountain, something happens:
"He put his arm on the seat behind her, his hand just touching her shoulder. Something gave inside her, like a latch undone, and she let go, letting herself rise with the motion of the lift. She took a deep breath and looked around her. Everything - the vista of mountains, the filmy clouds - was brilliantly clear."
About this time the novel itself becomes slightly unlatched, as Jefferson learns more than she imagined about the mores of Japan, and of the hibakusha and the devastation, physical and spiritual, of Hiroshima. As she walks with Okada while Mount Fuji floats on the horizon, the light leaves her more aware than ever of her surroundings:
"It was late afternoon, the edge of dusk, with a quality of light that gave nearby objects a pulsing intensity. The weeds by the side of the road loomed up at her, as if this was their last chance to be seen."
With such stark and lovely prose, Davis-Gardner turns this trip back to Japan in the 1960s into a believable excursion into the deep heart of a good young woman and her decent but damaged foreign friends, and into the minefield of questions that linger in American military strategy and foreign policy having to do with nuclear weapons. Thus a novel that starts out in what appears to be a post-mortem mood opens itself, and the sensitive reader, to life rather than death.
Alan Cheuse wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune. He is an author, a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered" and a writing teacher at George Mason University.