'Block Seventeen' by Kimiko Guthrie is a story about a young woman named Jane who's struggling to build a life with her fiancé, Shiro, all while things seemingly grow more chaotic and discordant around them.
After a strange car accident, it's almost as if they're in the eye of a storm. Someone rifles through their apartment, taking nothing.. but leaving behind strangely stacked towers of items. Shiro's distrust of the government and his employers misdeeds continues to grow.. becoming a veritable force of its own. And to top it all off, her mother seems to have disappeared.. leaving only traces of existence through online locations.. the woman becoming increasingly more difficult to track down in the real world.
While Jane searches for her mother and struggles to manage the stressors of her environment, she delves into her family's history through the incarceration of Japanese Americans, exploring the effects.. both directly and indirectly, that have rippled ever outward from those moments of loss, fear, and humiliation in a country they called home.
As a woman with mixed Asian heritage, I really wanted to love this story.. but despite it's lofty goals, it just never reached me deeply.
Guthrie certainly has a way with words and does a lovely job telling the story of these lives as they're spiraling outwardly, but ultimately it just ends up feeling a bit pretentious. I get the impression the author is heavily inspired by Murakami. She seems to like to play with surrealism and parallel worlds.. and I did enjoy the way they appear to exist side by side for Jane, neither more important or more real than the other.
The story definitely deals with some terrible things. From the internment of our own citizens simply due to race, a distant war, and out of control paranoia.. to the breakdown of mental and emotional capacity.. to the tragic losses and decisions made in times of desperation, there are plenty of important topics covered here.
Structurally, though there's a non-linear aspect to the storytelling, the book moves fluidly and the prose is eloquent. The author does a wonderful job connecting her characters to the reader through what they're feeling even if there isn't necessarily a lot of common ground to draw upon. Jane and Shiro experience a uniquely situational journey that I think few of us could really relate to in all its sensationalism.. though I'm sure there are pieces here and there.. a bit close to our hearts.
At the end of the day though, the story feels as if ultimately it goes nowhere. We traverse the history of the family, watch as Jane explores the limits of her own ability to cope, but the end falls rather flat for me. There is no real sense of closure on any of the topics and I found myself feeling nearly as adrift as I did at the beginning.. only with a bit more understanding of those involved. I will say, I feel like this was the intention. I believe the author was writing far more about the journey itself than any destination and if that's the case, well done.. but if there's meant to be a point, it isn't clearly defined.
Despite the fact this story is intriguingly dark at points, it reads to me like someone's grand idea of what deep literature might be.. but in that sense.. it feels half-formed. Even the emotion, while likely muted to match the self-repressive nature of the main character.. comes across like fingertips skirting the edge of a wound.. never daring to dip into the center of the pain while practically telling us at every turn that she's drowning in it.
Did I enjoy it? Yes.. actually. But it's still a tale that plateaus. I think the author could have literally chosen just about any chapter to signal the end of the story and I wouldn't have felt any more uncertain that it had been told to its conclusion.
I think it's worth a risk for those interested in exploring a little taste of the effects our internal political choices as a nation can have on our own people, the way our personal life decisions can affect us long term as individuals, or for those who just enjoy sort of.. meandering writings with little sense of direction. As I said, it's pretty enough.. I just like a bit more substance if an author chooses to take on a tougher subject, than this one provides.