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Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

March 25, 2015

Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  Graywolf Press (2011),  320 pages.

FAVORITE: 5 stars

A spectacular and totally absorbing novel about several generations of Japanese woman seeking to find and reestablish connections with their mothers and their pasts.

“Picking bones from ash” refers to the traditional Japanese practice of carefully removing the bones from ashes, with chop sticks, during special rituals involving cremation and burial. It is critical to one of the subplots in this book. Subtly it is a major theme in the book, symbolizing the search for the piece of one’s mother that a daughter carries forth into her own life. At a more universal level, the image suggests the process of finding and retaining what is true and important from the past for each of us.

Only a couple of decades ago, mothers and daughters were seldom the focus of literature, but now that more women writers have emerged, they are everywhere. Few authors, however, deal with the complexity of those relationships as well as Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Although mothers in her book are hardly sweet and nurturing, Mockett moves beyond the anger to explore daughters’ quest for their mothers.

Satomi is an eleven-year-old girl being raised by her mother, Akiko. No one knows who her father was and the pair are considered outsiders by others in their northern Japanese village. In their isolation they are very close to each other. Akiko believes that the only way a woman can be safe is to be “fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented.” She pushes her daughter to become an exceptional pianist, a goal Satomi shares. The first section of the book is about Satomi’s successful musical education, what changes between the two, and the men whom Satomi attracts as she comes of age. The second section focuses of Rumi, also age eleven and being raised by her father in San Francisco. Although she knows nothing about her mother, we quickly realize that she is Satomi’s daughter. Rumi’s father is an art dealer specializing in ancient Japanese artifacts. He carefully nurtures her ability to tell what real from what is fake. She also learns to “listen” to the art and begins to see a ghost that awakens mysteries. Later sections go back and fill in what happened between sections one and two and then follow Rumi and Satomi into the present. Rumi gradually uncovers her own past and that of her Japanese family. It is a mixed blessing.

It was as my mother had said: the past had complicated my view of my life, not simplified it. And yet, I was right too; my life now had a frame, and was colored with a history that stretched far, far back.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in the United States, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. In her book, she reveals her rich knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions. She takes us inside the community of collectors specializing in Far Eastern art and artifacts where we examine specific objects of value. We respectfully enter into the Buddhism temples in northern Japan and then observe a very different practice in California. We encounter the Shinto tradition as it continues to be practiced and attend local festivals of demons. Although not a speculative novel, some of the characters are aware of realities most of us never see. As one character explains, “We Japanese are sensitive to our environment in a way that the Western mind cannot be. Our world is alive, populated by ghosts and kami little gods who can inhibit anything from a tree to a rock to a cup.”

Although this is her first novel, Mockett’s writing is smooth and graceful. Her characters are unique but totally believable. Most remarkable is the unusual plot which she has created to reveal the layers and patterns of her characters. Her story is compelling and wise. I second the words of Amy Tan’s blurb for this book. “A book of intelligence and heart. As Mockett reveals, the ghosts of our mothers are always with us.” This novel sent me back to “picking the bones from the ash” of my own relationship with my mother.  As an historian, I believe that this what we must all do with the pasts we inherit.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all who value excellence in novels; to those who appreciate novels that make us think and feel; and to those wondering about the past.

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