Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet – if ever there’s been such an endearing title in the last year I have yet to find one – the hotel, The Panama, gateway to Seattle’s Japantown – the bitter, the internment of the Japanese in 1942 – the sweet, an epic love story.
Every once in a while a book comes along that truly touches your heart, whether through a poignant storyline, a narrative so beautiful it takes your breath away or a character so beguiling and powerful you can’t quite put the book down – Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet is one such book.
1986, The Panama Hotel.
The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during the Second World War. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel, stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his young heart to, so many years ago.
Adorning the cover is the tagline “The book a million people have fallen in love with” – make that a million and one! There’s something truly remarkable about this book that shook me to my very core. Until I read Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet I was convinced I’d already discovered my top two books of the year but boy has Ford’s narrative well and truly blown that theory to pieces – but the great thing? – this isn’t a title I would normally read.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve always had a fascination with history, World War one especially, but when Chiara from Allison and Busby contacted me to see if I would be interested in reading a story about the Japanese Internment camps in World War 2 I jumped at the chance. A combination of heart wrenching moments, the brutality of separation and a father and son at odds with one another leads to a rather wonderful book.
The narrative is simply divine and from the very first paragraph you’ll be swept away on a wave of pure emotion – whether following Henry’s fledgling romance with Kaiko or his struggle against school bullies – this book will take no prisoners. I’m not ashamed to say I did feel a little glistening of the eye towards the end of the book – and earlier on to be truthful – but I’m going to put that down to the enormous amount of pollen in the air!
Henry wasn’t sure which was worse, being picked on for being Chinese, or being accused of being a Jap. Though Tojo, the prime minister of Japan, was known as ‘the Razor’ because of his sharp legalistic mind, Henry only wished he were sharp enough to stay home from school when his classmates were giving speeches about the Yellow Peril. His teacher, Mrs Walker, who rarely spoke to Henry, didn’t stop the inappropriate and off-color remarks. And she never once called him to the blackboard to figure a math problem, thinking he didn’t understand English – though his improving grades must have clued her in, a little bit at least.
‘He won’t fight you, he’s a yellow coward. Besides, the second bell’s gonna ring any minute.’ Denny sneered at Henry and headed inside.
Set in 1942 and 1986, the book follows Henry’s journey of self discovery – his love of music, his battle against racism in the 40’s, a never ending love interest and his resolute defiance against his father’s beliefs that lead to three years of silence. The way Ford moves from one period to another is simply effortless and although the sights and sounds change from one era to another, the characters remain truthful to their origin.
The main character without doubt is the enigmatic Henry Lee and even as a twelve year old boy finding his way in tumultuous America he wears a badge that tells the world he is Chinese, simply to avoid persecution but it doesn’t always work out that way. He is such a deep and warm character, even in his youth – despite a rocky relationship with his father – raised with grace and honour and as he matures this never leaves him.
Ford handles the subject of Japanese Internment camps, or concentration camps as one senior politician called them, with a degree of sensitivity yet at the same time educating the reader to such a degree that it left very little to the imagination – A magnificent balance.
With a wonderful characterisation, mesmerising relationships, a breathtaking narrative and a story that will most certainly leave you wanting more, Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet is one of my highlights of the year. I cannot rate this title any higher – a remarkable read and a voyage not to be missed. Spellbinding.
Published by Allison and Busby the book is available to buy on Amazon.
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