The name Jay Rubin may ring a bell in some capacity or another. If you were enrolled at the University of Washington or Harvard University prior to 2008, then you may recognize his name as one of the faculty members from back then. However, on a much larger scale, his name is mostly recognizable for being one of the English language translators for the works of Japanese author Haruki Murakami; including “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and the first two books of “1Q84.” It was with that tie in mind that when I learned that he would be speaking at the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival, I also found out that he had recently released his first novel that’s been in the making for nearly a decade called “The Sun Gods.” It was that, plus his discussion about it at his presentation, that moved me to read this novel.
In the few years prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II, a widowed pastor in Seattle falls head over heals for a young woman who recently immigrated from Japan. She becomes a mother figure for his young son and a wife to him, but all hope for a bright future together is lost when the bombing of Pearl Harbor takes place and the hatred towards Japanese Americans- along with his religious beliefs- clouds the pastor’s judgment; so much as to where the woman finds herself being whisked away into the Minidoka interment camp. Fast forward nearly two decades and the son finds echoes of his youth willingly reaching out to him, as he goes on a journey to uncover the story behind the mysterious woman who loved him dearly like he was her own- a journey that will take him away from familiar territory and to the recovering country of Japan.
Let me say first and foremost that if you are expecting Rubin’s interpretation of a weird, magical realism-infested world like the books he translates, then you will be sorely disappointed. “The Sun Gods” makes it loud and clear that Rubin has his own voice apart from the famous man whom he translates; a voice that is strong and clear as it tells a compelling story about war, racism, and how love triumphs all. This was a powerful novel to read, from a point of view that has otherwise not been explored before regarding this unfortunate period of American history.
All the characters that appeared throughout the book brought on feelings that were appropriate for each one of them. In Bill, I could see a man with an open heart and a drive to do whatever it takes to reunite with the woman who was basically his mother; and I remained hopeful for him to find the answers he was looking for. I felt nothing but anger towards his father, for he allowed society’s influence- and his religious beliefs- to interfere with his love for Mitsuko; an attitude that I unfortunately recognized almost immediately. I felt sorry for Mitsuko for all that hardships she went through prior to moving out to the United States and how she was treated once she was there. But I also couldn’t help but feel admiration for the incredible strength she carried with her despite it all.
This is a recommendable book to read; not just for the story, but also for the history that drives it. People may argue that those who were interned in the camps during World War II didn’t have it that bad compared to the Jews in the concentration camps in Europe. “The Sun Gods” will show otherwise, as it goes in depth on how attitudes changed, how racism spread at its finest, how the conditions at the camps were really not at all that good, and how families- both biological families and otherwise- were torn apart. But without giving away the ending, what I will say is that if there’s a central theme to the book, it’s that love is strong and powerful, and it doesn’t taken any standard belief system to recognize that.