In this haunting and absorbing drama, Wynne-Jones movingly explores father-son relationships, the inexorability of war, and friendships across cultural and generational divides.
When 17-year old Evan’s father, Clifford, dies suddenly, Evan is forced to send for his grandfather, the military stickler Clifford E. ‘Griff’ Griffin II. Clifford had left home for Canada many years before to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, and had little contact with his disapproving father after that.
When he died, Clifford had been reading a book, which turns out to be an unprinted journal written by a Japanese soldier, Isamu Oshiro, at the end of World War II. He had washed up on a deserted island in the Marianas which he calls Kokoro-Jima, meaning ‘heart (shaped) island’, and evoking Setsuki’s 1914 novel, Kokoro (and before you swoon at my broadreaching intellectual prowess, I should say that I only know of this book because I came across a reference to it in Hark! A Vagrant). This island is full of ghosts and demons, and one of the many lovely ideas in this book is when we learn what these all represent. Soon Oshiro is joined by an injured American airman, Derwent Kraft, and they gradually learn to trust and respect each other.
We know from the start that Griff is somehow involved in this story, because Kraft’s son tells Evan that his grandfather is blocking the publication of the manuscript. It is only towards the end that the two strands of the book become fully integrated, and blossom into an opportunity for the Griffin family to mend their fractured history. But there are parallels throughout the books: Mr Wynne-Jones does not shy away from explicitly linking Kokoro-Jima with Evan’s perception of his home as an island, albeit a “perfectly ordinary” one; similarly, both Evan and Griff use the language of the military to communicate more than just what they’re saying.
The author does a superlative job of showing Evan’s waves of grief and rage at his father’s death; and more subtly, the decades-old agony of Griff about the breach with his son that was never reconciled. As Evan remembers his gentle father, he rubs up against Griff’s abrasion before realizing it is a mask, and giving them both the opportunity to move forward.
Though this is marketed and priced as a YA novel, it has a very adult feel to it, and its thoughtful pace and lyrical language might limit its appeal to teens who are looking for a meditation on conflict, both global and personal, rather than an action-packed historical drama.