Book review: Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Losing Kei
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: Leapfrog Press
Losing Kei, a novel by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate living in Japan, highlights the story of a mother who abandons her child, torn by the clash of cultures. Kei is the child from a marriage sundered by the incompatibility of the parents. The American mother leaves the Japanese father and their six-year-old son. Set in Japan, the focus of the story is on the mother’s struggle and inability to adjust to her marriage with a Japanese man in his own country.
Jill Parker, the mother and the protagonist, states at the very beginning of the story, ‘I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart.’ The author uses the perspective of the protagonist to narrate the story in first person. Jill takes an art scholarship to Japan to get over her boyfriend, Philip. When she meets her well-to-do Japanese spouse, Yusuke, a businessman who owns an art gallery, she is down and out. She has no money to pay her rent and works in a bar in Tokushima City to support herself. Yusuke is the solution to her monetary hardships and heartbreak. Jill marries Yusuke, telling him that she is exploring the world like Blondelle Malone, a nineteenth- early twentieth century impressionist artist who never married. However, unlike Malone, Jill is willing to marry. Jill doesn’t speak of her earlier heartbreak to Yusuke. As she struggles to conform to her Japanese marriage, she grows increasingly resentful of parental interference. The last straw for her is when Yusuke’s father dies and her husband declares that they would have to continue looking after his mother and live in the same house. For Jill, Yusuke’s grief at his father’s death is unattractive as is his clean-shaven face, which makes him seem ‘like a stranger’.
As she leaves him and her young child, one is left gaping at the heartlessness and self-centeredness of an irresponsible mother who is unable to put a child’s needs above her own.
As the story shuttles between the past and the present, among USA, Japan and Thailand, the reader is taken through a fast paced world of a jaded young woman with multiple affairs. Though she professes to love her child passionately, one feels sorry for the child as he struggles to reunite with his mother.
The title of the story, Losing Kei, is an unusual one. Though Jill keeps asserting that she is ‘losing’ the child every time he is taken away from her (even at birth), one cannot but feel that she is perhaps not the best person to bring up the child.
The major question that Kamata with her adept pen addresses in this novel is whether parenting should supersede the needs of an individual. Should a parent put a child’s needs before her or his own? The novel has been compared to the movie, Kramer vs. Kramer. Perhaps one of the dialogues of the movie sums up the feeling generated by the novel, ‘How much courage does it take to walk out on your own kid?’ Why would a woman leave her child in an environment she finds counterproductive to her own well-being? Also, is Jill’s background, coloured with a broken home, multiple affairs, lies and alcohol, a better environment to nurture a child than a steady Japanese home with roles defined by centuries?
Suzanne Kamata, with her fluent narrative shuttling between the past and present, has created a novel that explores multiple social issues we experience in today’s world – mixed marriages, cross cultural clashes, moral values, parenting versus individual needs. In Jill Parker, she has created an iconic modern day woman who is confused about her own needs and roles. She has to keep wrecking structures (like marriage, her dreams, her own career as an artist) to find elusive answers. She lives by her needs.
A five-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, the author is a well established woman of letters who uses the power of words to address pertinent problems thrown up by the world becoming closer and more aligned to a multicultural existence. Brought up in United States of America, at present Kamata herself resides in Tokushima, Japan, with her Japanese husband, mother-in-law and bi-cultural twins. She seems to have drawn from her own life across the two continents to weave an authentic tale of the clash of cultures, having had firsthand experience of both the West and the East.
I would call this novel a powerful and thought provoking read and perhaps a must for young parents.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.