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Shiny New Books: "It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it."

Date: Apr 21 2015

The publisher Europa Editions is primarily known in the UK for bringing translated fiction, mainly from Europe, to English-speaking readers. However, eight months ago they signed their first English author – Ben Byrne. Fire Flowers is his debut novel.

"A high, reedy voice began to speak, and Michiko sniggered. In fact, I had to stifle a smile myself, because it was true – it sounded like some funny boy speaking, not the voice that anyone would have expected from the Son of Heaven.

… The sun was burning my forehead now, and I wondered if His Majesty would carry on speaking for much longer. He was mumbling now about a weapon the Americans had used, a cruel modern weapon that might ‘annihilate the entire world,’ though I, for one, had no idea what he meant."

The Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, finally surrendered on August 14th, 1945 after Japan had withstood a prolonged campaign of fire-bombing over Tokyo some months previously; then in early August, the uranium bomb on Hiroshima, followed by the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. These actions killed over 200,000 people immediately and at least half as many again died later of their injuries and radiation sickness.

Byrne’s novel starts on the day of the surrender – and that radio broadcast, which happened to be the first time the Japanese people had heard the voice of their leader. After the firestorm which has left Tokyo mostly in ruins, we follow what it was like to live in the immediate aftermath of WWII there, seen through the eyes of four of its inhabitants.

Satsuko Takara and her younger brother Hiroshi have been orphaned and separated by the firestorm. Satsuko will never give up looking for her teenaged brother, he assumes she is probably dead too. Then there is Hal Lynch – an American who used to be an aerial photographer, and is now a photo journalist for the US press in Tokyo. Lastly we follow Osamu Maruki, a writer and Satsuko’s lover before he was sent to the South Pacific. The four have separate lives in the ruined city, but they will cross paths although not necessarily meeting before the novel’s end.

Satsuko and her friend Michiko, both starving, heard that there were secretary jobs available to work for the occupying Americans. But when it comes to the crunch:

"‘Regrettably Miss Takara, all of our back office positions have now been filled,’ the handsome man said. ‘But there are plenty of other positions still available. Fine positions. Noble positions. For patriotic women who are prepared to act as ‘consorts’ for our foreign guests, once they arrive.’

‘Well, Miss Takara? We’re counting on you. Will you help us?’"

Satsuko cannot say no – she will die of hunger. Thus begins her work at the ‘Comfort Station’ going under the name ‘Primrose’ servicing the needs of the American soldiers in a tiny cubicle.

Hal is world-weary and can’t disguise his guilt at what his aerial reconnaissance photos allowed the bombers to do. Now a civilian, he has too much of a conscience to toe the line and stick to writing and photographing cheerful pieces about Japan that Americans far away would want to read. It’s some time after the surrender when, talking to another American who is on his way out, he finds out that people are still dying in Hiroshima – that the radiation sickness and its long-term effects have been hidden from everyone. He determines to go there and report it to the world even though it is strictly forbidden; he will come under suspicion from General MacArthur and be liable to deportation if found out. He goes anyway – and visits a hospital where he meets a woman:

"She closed her eyes, gesturing toward her face. Her brows seemed to have been pushed in by the thumbs of a sculptor, her lips almost entirely smudged into her face. With an almost imperceptible noise, the old woman hunched over. Her medical chart lay on the edge of the bed. My scalp prickled as I deciphered it. She was only twenty-five years of age."

Hiroshi has joined a street-gang in his old district of Tokyo and being smart, will end up apprenticed to a member of the Yakusa, the Japanese mafia. Osamu, meanwhile, is renting a room from Mrs Shimamura who knows a good thing when she sees it, financing his magazine of erotic stories – a little fantasy to take the inhabitants’ minds off their lives under occupation.

The three Japanese will keep searching for each other but it will be Hal who meets and falls for Primrose. It is perhaps inevitable that Satsuko and Hal would meet. It is also inevitable that they would remind of one of my favourite Graham Greene novels, The Quiet American, set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, so not so far away in time nor place. Both have this world-weariness to them in which life has to go on in severely constrained circumstances after warfare ends. The Quiet American was seen as an anti-war novel; again Fire Flowers follows in Greene’s footsteps – making clear the devastation caused to civilians by the final American assaults on Japan.

Lynch’s trip to Hiroshima adds a different type of drama to the narrative with a slightly thrillerish feel as he tries to work out how to get his negatives out of Tokyo. This part of the story is inspired by and acknowledges the work of Pulitzer Prize winner John Hershey, whose reportage of Hiroshima was published by The New Yorker in August 1946.

Byrne’s research is impeccable and made it all feel very real. The main characters are totally believable. Of course you hope that Satsuko won’t be left like Ciocio-san in Madame Butterfly and I haven’t hinted either at how the paths of Hiroshi and Osamu might converge with the others. The will to survive is strong in these young people and with luck they will flower again from the fires that ravaged their city.

Fire Flowers is the first novel I’ve read set during this time and place. It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it.