A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton


Amaterasu Takahashi has spent her life grieving for her daughter Yuko and grandson Hideo, who were victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Now a widow living in America, she believes that one man was responsible for her loss; a local doctor who caused an irreparable rift between mother and daughter.

When a man claiming to be Hideo arrives on her doorstep, she is forced to revisit the past; the hurt and humiliation of her early life, the intoxication of a first romance and the realisation that if she had loved her daughter in a different way, she might still be alive today.

UK Cover


US Cover

A confession.  I have only just read this book.  It was published last year but is now on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016  so this review is for those who haven’t yet read it!
I found A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding an incredibly moving book. Beautifully written, restrained and sensitive – and a wonderful first novel.
Amaterasu is an elderly Japanese widow who had moved to America with her husband Kenzo following the horrific bombing of Nagasaki and the loss of her daughter Yuko and grandson Hideo.
However one winter morning a badly disfigured middle-aged Japanese man appears on her doorstep, declaring he brought her good news and claiming to be her grandson Hideo, who she had last seen as a 7 year old schoolboy on the day of the bombing.
She can’t accept this news as she has mourned the death of her grandson for nearly forty years and cannot accept now that he is alive. The man gives her a business card and a letter and asks her to read the letter so they can talk later.
We learn a little bit about Amaterasu, how she had lived with terrible guilt for all these years, feeling that she was responsible for her daughter’s death because she had insisted that her daughter meet her at Urakami Cathedral, a place her daughter otherwise would not have been.  There are hints of a serious rift between mother and daughter.
She and her husband had left Japan and gone to America for a fresh start, and Amaterasu hoped she could leave the past behind. She didn’t speak much of her life before coming to America, resisted learning English, using her lack of English to avoid difficult conversations.
When she opened the letter it was from the wife of Dr Jomei Sato, the man she blamed for her daughter’s death, and the letter revealed that Sato and his wife had adopted and raised Hideo.
We are then treated to an account of the events of the morning before the bomb was dropped and Amaterasu’s and Kenzo’s search for their daughter and grandson in the aftermath. When she goes to her daughter’s house two nights after the bomb she notes how quickly a family home can become empty and silent, like a mausoleum. 
Amaterasu discovers Yuko’s hidden diaries and takes them home and finds a new hiding place. No one should read her daughter’s diaries, neither her nor Kenzo, and certainly not Yuko’s husband Shige when he returns from war.
She never did read them but almost forty years later, the appearance of the man claiming to be her grandson prompts her to bring out the diaries and start reading them.
The story is then told with the help of the diaries, photograph albums and a parcel containing letters written to Yuko from Dr Sato, but all unsent.
Everything is linked beautifully together in the story. Secrets, betrayals, guilt, love, perhaps even jealousy. The present and the past are stitched together seamlessly.
There are also revelations about Amaterasu’s early life which partly explain her actions later.
Each chapter started with a Japanese word relating to culture followed by its definition. I found these introductions interesting and relevant to the chapters. It was also helpful as it explained some cultural expectations that are quite alien to western culture.
It’s a great first novel and I’m so pleased it has made the longlist of the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Amazon.co.uk:     A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Author website:    www.jackiecopleton.com

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