Above the East China Sea
In her most ambitious novel, Sarah Bird entwines the tales of two teenaged girls, both on Okinawa but in different eras
Reviewed by Amy Gentry, Fri., May 16, 2014
Above the East China Seaby Sarah Bird
Knopf, 336 pp., $25.95
Some of Sarah Bird's best work has had young adult crossover potential, and Above the East China Sea, about two teenage girls in Okinawa from different time periods, is no different. Perhaps because the writer's gift for well-observed snark translates so easily into the mouths and minds of teens, whose guardedness, yearning for authenticity, and linguistic invention ("smooch nugget" comes to mind) she captures perfectly.
Make no mistake, though: This is Bird's most ambitious novel to date, tackling a World War II tragedy about which most Westerners know little or nothing. During the Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of island teens known as the Princess Lily Girls were forced to serve as nurses on the front lines under horrifying conditions and eventually abandoned to die when the Japanese evacuated. Fifteen-year-old Tamiko is one of the many Princess Lily Girls who jumped to their deaths rather than face the atrocities they'd been told to expect from American soldiers. But on Okinawa, the dead live on, and Tamiko's spirit reaches out to modern-day military brat Luz James, stationed with her tough-talking mom on one of the many U.S. military bases, for help finding peace. Luz herself struggles with suicidal thoughts after the death of her older sister, Codie; learning to live with the dead rather than join them is one of the book's grimmer themes.
Bird depicts Okinawa's island culture, and its violent near-erasure at the hands of Japan and America, in hypnotic detail. At times, Tamiko's voice feels stiff and strained beside Luz's rattling teenspeak, but the history is undeniably gripping, and the shadow of the Afghan War in Luz's background unites the past and present. Ultimately, this tale of how women and girls survive bloody times manages its happy ending without offering easy answers – quite a feat for such an entertaining read.
A launch party for Above the East China Sea will be held Thursday, May 29, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar.