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A dictionary of Mutual UnderstandingA Delicate and Redemptive Story of Nagasaki

Jackie Copleton, the author of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, was working in Nagasaki as an English language teacher in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on that city. This book has in some ways been percolating away for 20 years.

In her foreword, Copleton states her aim, with this book :

When we talk about conflict we tend to divide the warring sides into the good guys and the baddies. This book was never meant to be a story about blame or accusation. I wanted to pull something good from the ruins of the city

It was that stated intention which drew me to this, as it rather suggested a writer of emotional nuance and depth, and the following was the clincher:

The more you research a subject the more it shatters into different interpretations. We view history through the prism of who we are, what we believe, how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived. We pick through the bones of the past until we find the narrative to suit our needs

So…..clearly Copleton is a thoughtful person with clear aims and empathy and imagination towards different stories, different viewpoints.

But is she a novelist? Resoundingly so


Yes, this book does look at the moment of impact, when the bomb fell, and there is a detailed and searing account of the blast and its horrific consequences. This chapter is stark and terrible, but it is not the big set-piece climax or story of the book

In some ways, this is a story of an ordinary family, leading ordinary lives, with ordinary secrets, lies and cupboards of skeletons. It is the terrible impact of ‘pikadon’ (brilliant light, boom – the sight and sound of that bomb) on those ordinary lives with their ordinary skeletons which the book follows, giving us a picture of Japan through the eyes of her central character. Amaterasu Takahashi, an elderly Japanese widow, living in a retirement home in America in the nineteen eighties. Amaterasu and her husband Kenzo left Nagasaki after their daughter, Yuko and her son, their grandson, Hideo, aged seven, died in the blast. Amaterasu’s story, however starts, aged 15, shortly after the end of the First World War in Nagasaki, in a very different kind of Japan.

When the book opens the elderly Amaterasu is alone, lonely, secretive, living with terrible secrets, and a feeling of guilt. She feels it was through her fault that Yuko was in the direct epicentre of the bomb’s impact, on that day. She, rather than anyone else, caused Yuko’s death. She keeps herself to herself, and since her husband’s death gets through her days with just enough alcohol to take the edge off her unbearable anguish.

The past breaks through when a middle aged Japanese man, dreadfully burned, dreadfully disfigured, unexpectedly knocks at her door and announces himself as that long dead grandson, a lucky survivor of pikadon. And his story, and the story of how in the end he found her, and the documentary evidence he brings, unravels the secrets, the skeletons, the lives.

Interspersed, at the beginning of every chapter, are excerpts from An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture, by Bates Hoffer and Nobuyaki Honna, which take a word which describes a Japanese ethical, cultural or philosophical concept which has no direct Western correlation, and picks it apart, explains it. The concepts chosen are to some extent unfolding in the succeeding chapter

Memorial, Nagasaki Peace Park, Wiki Commons

Memorial, Nagasaki Peace Park, Wiki Commons

There is a kind of modesty, an elegance and restraint in Copleton’s writing, in the voice of her central character, the letters and diaries written by protagonists in this story, which rather honours and embraces a country which is now so Westernised – but, also, so strange to Westerners.

I read this as a copy for review, from the Amazon Vine programme, UK and it’s one I Jackie-Copleton-photohighly recommend. The story is one the reader needs to discover for themselves. I did guess quite a lot of what might be going on, probably because I have read some other fictional books with a Japanese setting, so putting two and two together about certain characters, I was not as a reader surprised by narrative. Which made not a jot of difference to my pleasure in the reading.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding Amazon UK
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding Amazon USA – digital edition

The digital edition is available in the States, the Hardback will not be published there till December. Available as hardback and digi now in the UK