Friday, January 16, 2015

Fog Island Mountains

Here's a book review that even counts as something towards my 2015 Reading Challenge under "book set in a different country".

Fog Island Mountains - Michelle Bailat-Jones
Fog Island Mountains
What if you could rewrite a tragedy? What if you could give grace to someone s greatest mistake? Huddled beneath the volcanoes of the Kirishima mountain range in southern Japan, also called the Fog Island Mountains, the inhabitants of small town Komachi are waiting for the biggest of the summer's typhoons. South African expatriate Alec Chester has lived in Komachi for nearly forty years. Alec considers himself an ordinary man, with common troubles and mundane achievements until his doctor gives him a terminal cancer diagnosis and his wife, Kanae, disappears into the gathering storm. Kanae flees from the terrifying reality of Alec's diagnosis, even going so far as to tell a childhood friend that she is already a widow. Her willful avoidance of the truth leads her to commit a grave infidelity, and only when Alec is suspected of checking himself out of the hospital to commit a quiet suicide does Kanae come home to face what it will mean to lose her husband. Narrating this story is Azami, one of Komachi's oldest and most peculiar inhabitants, the daughter of a famous storyteller with a mysterious story of her own. A haunting and beautiful reinterpretation of the Japanese kitsune folktale tradition, Fog Island Mountains is a novel about the dangers of action taken in grief and of a belief in healing through storytelling.

If there was maybe an award for book with the least like-able character, this one would certainly be in the running. The book is set in Japan, kind of in the middle of some mountains and they have a huge typhoon heading their way so people are in various stages of storm preparedness. But it starts out with Alec, who is in a consultation room at a hospital, about to get some of the worst news anyone would get- he has terminal cancer. He was waiting for his wife, Kanae, to be at the consultation and take the news with him but she's seemingly a no-show. Instead, she's off being self absorbed and basically a terrible human being, and not realizing how her actions would impact Alec. 

Very strange thing about this book is that while it does offer different points of view from a cast of characters, instead of starting a new chapter like most books, it's like every few paragraphs it's a new character we're hearing from. Granted, we have some line spaces so you could figure it out, but for me it made it harder to read and I really felt like I was ping ponging between people. Also, the story is short, we don't even come in at 200 pages, so what should have been a fast read wasn't. Between the ping ponging and the almost poetic way it's written, it doesn't feel like a fast read at all, instead it feels as heavy as the material we're reading. It's certainly not an uplifting book by any means. 

I spent pretty much the entire book feeling sorry for Alec, who is facing the remaining time of his life and hating Kanae who despite being a highly intelligent person, makes a serious of terrible, selfish choices. It would be one thing if she was just holed up somewhere prematurely grieving the soon to be loss of her husband, who she very clearly loved. Instead, she's cheating on him and leaving him to face death alone. Some could say maybe her love for him was just so huge that the thought of him being gone was not something she could handle mentally or emotionally so she chose intimacy with someone else as a grieving process, but that feels just so wrong and selfish I couldn't wrap my head around it. I really couldn't find any sympathy for her at all. 

But what redeemed this book for me was Alec. His story of grieving on his own, his process through death, and every emotional piece of luggage that comes with it just pulls at you and you can't stop reading. It really is the car wreck you can't look away from. It really feels like as a reader, you have to be there with him to the end because his loser wife isn't doing the job, and nobody should face that alone. Not ever, not for nothing. 

So I teeter between a rating of "I liked it" 3 stars or "It was OK" 2 stars, because I'm really down the middle. So for that, I guess for estimation I would round up to 3 stars. But I tell you, characters like Kanae can really ruin a book and that was a pretty ballsy move for this author to take, because I don't know that many people would keep reading once they saw the writing on the wall with her. 

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