Length: 382 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
From the publisher:
One summer night in prewar Japan, eleven-year-old Billy Reynolds takes snapshots at his parent’s dinner party. That same evening his father Anton–a prominent American architect–begins a torrid affair with the wife of his master carpenter. A world away in New York, Cameron Richards rides a Ferris Wheel with his sweetheart and dreams about flying a plane. Though seemingly disparate moments, they will all draw together to shape the fate of a young girl caught in the midst of one of WWII’s most horrific events–the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.
Exquisitely-rendered, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tells the stories of families on both sides of the Pacific: their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses–and their shared connection to one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.
Here’s what I thought:
While much of wartime historical accounts tend to focus on dates and battles, what really interests me is the human aspect behind those–the stories of people who lived through events which defined their time and left their mark on the world forever. In The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, Epstein takes the reader into the lives of people who will experience the effects of war on the most personal level.
I haven’t read very many books about WWII in the Pacific theater, but after finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken last year, I knew it was an area of history that I needed to know more about. Most people are familiar, to some degree, with the atomic bombs which marked a turning point in the war and in our collective history, but The Gods of Heavenly Punishment features the lesser known 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which destroyed more than half the city and killed roughly a hundred thousand people.
Rather than merely conveying the story of this event, however, the author reveals the book’s characters through glimpses of their lives both before, during, and after the war. Each chapter is a vignette which reveals a time and place and shows yet another side to the bigger story. I was particularly affected by the way Epstein describes the city of Tokyo as the cosmopolitan place that is was before the war, through the harshness of war and its deprivations, to the devastation that came with the bombing in ’45 and to its slow rebuilding.
What I appreciated most about this book, though, was the way it uses characterization to illustrate the many shades of gray surrounding any historical event. Just as there is no black and white when it comes to war, so Epstein’s characters are a mix of cultures and backgrounds–Japanese having grown up in the West, Westerners having grown up in Japan–and yet they are just humans trying to make their way in a world that is falling apart around them.
I loved the way Epstein weaves the different threads of the story together to a conclusion that reveals a larger, human truth. Highly recommended.
About the author:
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.
Thanks so much to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book and giving me a chance to share my review.