Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Odori

Odori by Darcy Tamayose
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May 29, 11

bookshelves: historical-fiction, fiction, 2011
Read in May, 2011

In 1999 Mai Yoshimoto-Lanier is driving with her husband Eddie along the Belly River, in southern Alberta, to the bridge - the same bridge where her own grandparents and their young son died after an accident sent them into the river. It's icy and the car fishtails and dives into the river. Eddie dies immediately, but Mai slips into a coma.

In her coma, she finds herself at the Okinawan seaside cottage of her great-grandmother, or bisan, Chiru. Chiru is a kataribe, or storyteller, and she begins to tell stories to Mai about the Okinawan islands - once called the Ryukyu Kingdom, a place of unbelievable peace and prosperity and a heart of trade that was eventually conquered by the Japanese; and about Mai's own mother Emiko and her twin sister Miyako, who were sent at a young age back to Okinawa from Canada to be looked after by their grandparents, Chiru and Zenzo. After their parents are killed in the Belly River, there is no one left to raise them but their grandparents, so they stay in Okinawa and are there when war comes. The Okinawan islands become a violent battleground between Japanese and American forces, which killed a third of the Okinawan civilians and left no one untouched.

Throughout the stories set in both Okinawa and Alberta, threads the recurring theme of odori, a traditional Japanese dance performed with graceful hand and arm movements that speak silent words. Chiru teaches Emiko and Miyako odori, though only Emiko shows a strong talent for it. Later, Emiko teaches Mai and, even later, Mai's twin daughters Hanna and Heather. In the worst of situations, Emiko would mentally retreat into a world of odori movements, to calm herself and, in a way, save her soul from breaking at the atrocities she witnesses during the war.

The spirit of odori is also captured in the flow of words, the spell of tranquility the narrative can conjure. Because much of the book is stories told by the spirit of Mai's basan, there is an omnipresent narrator who "tells" more than "shows", but beneath the words lies this cinematic sweep of subtle understanding. Even when basan takes a step back to view history as a broader story than just that of Mai's family, there is a flavour to the words that summon up more than what is actually said.

The war was seeping in now, through a tear in time. Once opened, it allowed the war to rush in like a mad syphon. Reconnaisance and minesweeping by American demolition teams continued along the coral reefs surrounding Okinawa. The mountainous Kerama Islands in the southwest were taken first. Over a dozen women and children were found strewn on the beaches, necks sliced, heads bashed, killed by their loved ones to protect them from the barbaric women-and-children-raping American invaders. More than a thousand ships approached, wave upon wave of amphibious units swarming like hungry mosquitos hovering patiently in the pristine waters. [p.134]


There is nothing static or cold or distant about such storytelling, told from the Okinawan perspective. And in the spaces between, told in present tense, where Mai and Chiru talk and share in their surreal otherworld, the narrative takes on a dreamlike quality, an insubstantial world that has deeply felt, tangible meaning. There is a strong emphasis on the senses, which are a vivid part of Mai's world as an artist.

The old seeker pans the sand on the shore in a kind of round cake tin lined with wire mesh. Teetering on stick ankles and stick feet, she crouches as her diaphanous cotton jacket billows around her, a small silk parachute. She is Japanese-mushroom in colour and texture. Her rubbery skin is a pale taupe for the most part, but there are gradients of brown under the eyes and on the melanin spots that cover her entire body like camouflage. The body that houses this soul is near its end.

There is a haze in the air that absorbs colour. The greens, usually dripping emerald and chartreuse, are dark-sage and nearly black-olive, neutral shades. The smell of wet hangs in the air. The rock I lean against smells faintly of metal, which is not displeasing to me, but is distracting. [p.78]


It is fascinating to me how well Tamayose created these three-dimensional landscapes while still maintaining an atmosphere of intangibility, of something surreal; it is like seeing art, having it presented to you in this way, but without being told how to interpret it. And I loved that sense of respect, both to the reader and to the story itself: a deep respect and appreciation for this other world, this other time, these other people, and a powerful need to give voice to their experiences. It doesn't matter that the coma device has been done before: it's given new life here, and is a distinctly individual experience for Mai, blending seamlessly with the kataribe tradition and a wise old lady called Chiru. Of all the characters, I felt particularly drawn to Chiru and Zenzo, who are the real heart and soul of Emiko's family and of the whole story.

This wasn't the easiest story to read - being 35 weeks pregnant, all my "baby brain" wants is light, fluffy, funny reads; not only that, but this book kept making me cry. It's not just the people who affected me deeply, but the tragic history of the Ryukyu Islands themselves, once a paradise of peace - where the people are famously still the longest-living humans on earth - later to be violently hurt by war. It's also a fascinating look into Okinawan culture and history - the islands being not truly Japanese, with their own dialect and belief system.

The oceanic islands present a direct, drastic contrast to the prairie setting of Alberta, of vast fields of sweetcorn and drought. The image of Chiru dragging her red rocking chair across the yellow fields is a vivid one, one that Mai captures in an abstract painting on a rock beneath an elm tree. The connection with the earth - with land and sea and the elements - is a strong theme in Odori, no matter where a scene takes place. And while I have never been to the prairies and never made it to Okinawa while I was living in Japan, the characters' deep love for the landscape resonated with me, as I feel the same way about my homeland and miss it deeply. Sometimes I feel like I can smell the dusty eucalypts or the shearing shed on my parents' farm, and my heart aches. Such is the way Mai and Emiko feel for Alberta, and Okinawa too. It's hard to put it into words, I certainly can't, but Tamayose captures it as an essence with her words.

The war stories are over, my Basan says, but I realize what she has done. Through her words and my mother's letters, the kataribe has altered the firmament of my soul and forever marked my future with her tongue. I will now always wonder if the bombs still echo when the wars are over. I want to go home, but here I am. [p.185]


That is precisely what this novel does to you, both anchoring you and freeing you to absorb another time and place as if it were your own. It also makes me think of all the untold stories, the stories we aren't interested in that are in danger of slipping into the realm of "never happened". And it's so vital to hear stories from a different angle. This is the history teacher in me, stressing the importance of questioning and listening and wondering, and I love it when a book comes along that can make an untold story accessible. Odori is a celebration of ancient storytelling - in spoken word and dance - as much as it is the story of a family whose souls are embedded in the bright sands of Okinawa, and the rich soil of the Alberta prairies.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by newwaytowrite (new)

newwaytowrite Just wanted to point you towards a novel called

A Chorus of Mushrooms Hiromi Goto


Shannon (Giraffe Days) newwaytowrite wrote: "Just wanted to point you towards a novel called

A Chorus of Mushrooms Hiromi Goto"


Thanks for the rec!


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