Lydia Minayota, The Strangeness of Beauty
The title of this novel refers to a Japanese word, "myo", meaning the art of creating "strange beauty", namely of finding beauty in the ordinariness of everyday life.
In this novel, which takes the form of a fictional autobiography, a Japanese woman, Etsuko, emigrates to Seattle with her husband in 1918, at a time when the Japanese were considered the "yellow peril" by many Americans. She is soon joined by her sister and his husband. Soon a widow, Etsuko finds herself raising her niece, Hanae, after her sister has died in childbirth. Because Hanae grows to become a withdrawn and solitary child, her father decides to send her to Japan to her grandmother, believing that she will find a sense of belonging in the country of her ancestors. Etsuko returns to Japan with Hanae, whom she considers like her daughter. She anticipates with fear the reunion with her own estranged mother, Chie, who gave her away to be raised by adoptive parents soon after she was born.
A chronicle of the Japanese-Americans and the hardships their encountered in a culture so different from their own, a chronicle also of a Japan at the same time changing and immutable, The Strangeness of Beauty reflects the struggles of the narrator to grasp the meaning of her own life. A stranger in both countries, she has difficulties finding out who she really is and where she belongs. Writing is her way to meet her true self and her narration reflects her path toward self-discovery and self-assurance.
The narrator begins every entry with a reflection on the "I-story" and its purpose, dealing with such issues as subjectivity, or cultural and historical status of the I-story. This reflection on the I-story in general leads her to a meditation upon her own life. At first the writing is detached, the narration distant, and the characters seem flat and lifeless; the reader has some trouble caring for them. But as the story develops, and as the narrator herself becomes more involved in the narration, the characters come to life, as if progressively cultural facades were dissolving to reveal a common human nature, made of similar emotions and intimate experiences. In particular, Minatoya, through the three female characters; the grandmother, the mother and the daughter, focuses on the tie that binds mothers and children and shows how its core goes beyond cultural boundaries.
Along the way, Minatoya provides us with a lot of interesting historical and cultural Japanese background: thus we learn about traditions among the samurai families, arranged marriages, meaning of the art of cooking, of the tea ceremony and importance of "kata" (proper mode of behavior for each particular situation in life).
In some ways, The Strangeness of Beauty reminds a lot of this excellent chronicle of a Japanese family set in the same period: The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Both novels give the reader a sense of intimacy with the characters.