~by Suzanne Kamata
Losing Kei is a novel by the American expatriate author Suzanne Kamata. Written in 2007, portions of Losing Kei were previously published in New York Stories, Literary Mama, and Her Circle Ezine before the novel was released in its entirety by Leapfrog Press in 2008. Originally from Michigan (which I was excited to discover since I currently live in Michigan) and then South Carolina, Kamata now lives in Japan. While Losing Kei was Kamata's first novel, many of her shorter works had previously been published. She also acted as the editor for the collection The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan which I would be very interested in reading. I first learned about Kamata's work and received a copy of Losing Kei through LibraryThing's Member Giveaway program. Described as a mix of Lost in Translation and Kramer vs. Kramer, I was looking forward to giving it a try.
Jill Parker was an aspiring artist who had her heart broken. Her response was to move from the United States to the other side of the world. Finding a remote area of the Japanese coast to pursue her painting on her own terms, Jill never intended to fall in love with and marry the owner of a local art gallery. Yusuke's parents don't particularly approve of their son's marriage to a foreigner; Jill is in for a bit of a culture shock when she is expected to adapt her behaviour to meet their expectations. But for a time Jill is happy, especially after the birth of her son Kei. Unfortunately, her happiness doesn't last. Her relationship with her husband and his family falls apart, ultimately ending in divorce. Perhaps the worst of it for Jill is that she loses custody of her son. Separated from Kei and shut out of his life by Yusuke's mother, Jill would do anything to get him back.
Losing Kei is told directly from Jill's perspective, allowing Kamata to firmly establish Jill's thoughts and feelings as events unfold. In fact, the narrative follows her point of view exclusively. Doing so does limit the reader's understanding of the other characters and their actions; only one side of the story is told in Losing Kei. However, Jill is a fully realized character with both strengths and faults because of it. To be completely honest, while I could sympathize with Jill's plight, there were often times that I really didn't like her as a person. To me, this was actually a sign of a well-developed character. Kamata captures Jill and all of her fears completely. The tense atmosphere of Losing Kei is an excellent portrayal of one woman's struggle to adjust to a foreign country and culture as she deals with a terrible situation which she helped to bring about. Jill jumped into her new life without fully comprehending what exactly that would mean. It results in tragedy for her, but as her understanding grows, so does she as an individual.
Losing Kei is an engaging novel. The chapters alternate between the past and present, a technique that works extremely well for this story. In the past Jill is full of optimism as she recovers from her broken heart while her present is filled with an entirely different heartache. The contrast between the two time periods is used very effectively to drive the narrative. I wanted to keep reading Losing Kei in order to discover how things could go so terribly wrong when it finally looked things were turning out right for Jill. Knowing that she loses her son from the very beginning only increases the tension as the story unfolds. Kamata does falter slightly during the novel's climax, introducing an element seemingly out of nowhere to force the plot in the right direction, but overall Losing Kei is a strong debut. Kamata's own experiences as an expatriate in Japan lend to the novel's authenticity; it offers a glimpse into aspects of the country that are not always seen.