Volume 92, Issue 64

Thursday, January 21, 1999


Ember's success still burning

Tijuana cracks the London scene

Uravelling Japanese past

Virus goes home with the flu

Uravelling Japanese past

Kerri Sakamoto
Vintage Canada
$17.95/305 pgs.

"We're so full of shame, aren't we Asako? We hide away, afraid that they'll lock us up again. That's it, isn't it?"

The haunting sense of persecution surrounds the intrigue of Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field. Understanding the plight of the Japanese Canadians during the World War II internment is almost a hopeless undertaking. It seems a bad rationalization and a blatant exercise in hypocrisy. Thus in hindsight, the analysis exemplifies society's futile attempt at justification.

Sakamoto describes the sombre episode's impact on the Japanese-Canadian population. Nominated for the Governor General's Award, this novel powerfully details the residual sense of Japanese embarrassment and shame. It is a story of collisions where old and new worlds intersect. Where pride and shame unite. Where history and fiction connect.

Set in rural Ontario in the 1970s, an eclectic group of Japanese Canadians struggle with one woman's mysterious death and the suspicious disappearance of her bitter activist husband. The narrator, Asako Saito, must come to terms with her own past in order to unravel the truth behind the murder.

The perspective becomes increasingly complicated through a series of slowly revealed episodic flashbacks. Sakamoto artfully develops the narrative's fragile instability through Saito's perpetual sense of paranoia and fear. The structure hovers in a dream-like reality subtly anchored in the past.

The principle pleasure ofThe Electrical Field is the dynamic union of fictional, historical and sociological components. The historical focal point does not act as a sweeping magnifier of the Japanese Canadian experience. Instead, Sakamoto actively distinguishes the multiplicity of experience. She carefully differentiates between the humiliated Japanese Canadian and the hopeful Japanese immigrant.

In another dimension, she explores the intergenerational psychological scarring of internment. She further contrasts one activist's need for retribution against another woman's desire for compliance. In a concentrated effort, Sakamoto insightfully reconciles the diverse individualities within the Japanese Canadian community.

On balance, however, the narrative falters in its pessimistic emphasis. The characters seem to exist in a vacuum of negativity and bitterness. Irregular episodes of arrested happiness do indeed break the pervading gloomy mood. Yet, these infrequent pauses are bittersweet and short-lived. The novel accordingly loses its momentum and becomes trapped in a cycle of despair and anger.

With this novel, Sakamoto has broken the fearful communication barrier. She artfully articulates the many truths of the Japanese Canadian alienation. The novel contrasts the ghostly sanctuaries of the past with the hollow comforts of the present. The mystery of the self accordingly becomes accessible and hauntingly beautiful.


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Copyright The Gazette 1999