Above the East China Sea
By Sarah Bird
Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95
Award winning Texas novelist, screenplay writer and columnist, Sarah Bird, bursts through her comedic chrysalis and takes flight in her newest fiction novel Above the East China Sea. The difficult trajectory of tragedy, both in historical wartime Okinawa intermingled with the present day Okinawan challenges as experienced via a United States military family stationed at the Kadena Air Force base, reveal her writing evolution.
The novel follows two first person narrators: Luz, present day and Tamiko, wartime. Luz, newly relocated teenager and Air Force military brat, lives with her sergeant mother while they both address the recent loss of their third family member, Codie, Luz’s older sister. Tamiko, Okinawa native whose high school education ceased when she became a battlefield nurse, worked in the Japanese Imperial Army’s cave hospitals.
The stories begin with Tamiko jumping to her death off the suicide cliffs located on the southern most tip of Okinawa Island. Flanked by Japanese soldiers pushed south by the oncoming American soldiers, she intentionally selects the exit for her and her unborn child, as to die a violent death at the hands of soldiers would condemn them to haunt the place forever and never reunite with their clan. In present day Luz is standing at the top of the cliff contemplating suicide. Overwhelmed by their new location, the first move made without her sister, Luz seeks escape while her mom is on a 2-day temporary duty assignment. A new friend checks on her, they are partying on the beach, and she reintegrates back into the group still reflecting upon options. Later that same evening, intoxicated, she walks alone on the beach, which turns into a swim, and a near drowning incident during which Luz sees Tamiko and her son imploring her to rescue them.
The brilliantly executed and sophisticated overlapping stories simultaneously educate and inspire as each narrator addresses coming of age, but it’s the setting, the exposé on grief, and the careful incorporation of the Obon festival and Okinawans beliefs make this novel a masterpiece. The conversations between Tamiko and her son, Luz’s escapades with the Quasis, the delicate presentation of wartime violence, and the Okinawan saying of “Nuchi du takara” (life is the treasure) are just a few of the key components Ms. Bird employs.
Okinawa was, is, and, due to long-lasting Japanese and American decisions, will remain a place contested. While the novel strikes a careful balance to avoid blame, it does highlight the ongoing powerlessness of Okinawans. At times the character narrative viewpoints border on victimization and some of the religious explanations become preachy. These infrequent descents may be off-putting. The skillfully wrought denouement however unites the community and cultural information providing the reader with understanding and an unexpected treasure: hope.
Above the East China Sea is an exceptional tale. Ms. Bird transforms the darkness into light without downplaying the difficulties of life.